Must theater sell its soul for new audiences? Director Jamie Lloyd has made it his mission to bring a new generation into theater, but at what price? Canny casting pulls in a young crowd; flashy productions send them out breathlessly excited. The flip side is superficiality, and his “Doctor Faustus,” starring Kit Harington of “Game of Thrones,” is nothing if not that. If it gets away with it, it’s because Colin Teevan’s adaptation of the Christopher Marlowe play turns its focus on the seduction of surface appearances in the modern world.
Harington starts as a hermit in a hoodie, a square-eyed millennial drooling bungee-chords of phlegm off the end of his bed. The Internet is the font of his knowledge, and when he flips open his laptop, the Apple logo lights up: that bite more blasphemous than ever. He’s already surrounded by demons, all of them hanging around his flat in soiled underwear as he bounces off the walls.
His pact with Jenna Russell’s close-cropped, sallow-skinned Mephistopheles makes him an A-lister, a megastar magician in the mold of David Blaine. Harington transforms convincingly from superhacker to superstar — a feat few actors could pull off. His lank hair now looks stylish; his hoodie hangs opens on a gym-toned body — one he parades, for most of the second half, in tight white trunks.
Teevan wisely does away with Marlowe’s middle section, rewriting in order to refresh its satire. We still see popes and presidents, but here they’re coerced into Faustus’ magic act and humiliated. The writing glitches from blank verse to contemporary prose, an intriguing flip that finds a spatial echo as Soutra Gilmour’s design deconstructs itself to reveal Faustus’ apartment as a stage set. Faustus might have everything he wants, but none of it’s real. Russell’s Mephistopheles is more stage manager than miracle worker.
Lloyd deploys a canny mix of reality and illusion, even if he’s not always in total control of it. Nudity sits next to simulated sex. Actors smear themselves in real ketchup and fake dung. They vomit and bleed. That vocabulary isn’t entirely interrogated though, and too often visceral acts are reduced to empty images. At one point, Harrington wolfs down an entire pizza — an act that should turn our stomachs — but rather than give space to his struggle, Lloyd lets the moment get lost in a melee. That’s a lot of calories for too little effect.
That’s true of the whole. There’s so much going on here that Lloyd’s production starts to feel relentlessly restless. Russell drops a karaoke medley to prove the devil gets all the best tunes, while fellow cast member Tom Edden shapeshifts through the Seven Deadly Sins. The flailing arms and zombie stomps of Polly Bennett’s choreography recall the work of Hofesh Schecter (“Fiddler on the Roof”), and sound designers Max and Ben Ringham chuck glib pop interjections into a noisy soundscape, so that Minnie Ripperton’s “Loving You” creeps into every romantic encounter. Everything’s playing in the same park — samples, loops and artifice — but there’s too little time to think it all through. It’s actually creepiest at its quietest, with the chorus looking on in horrified glee as Faustus self-destructs. It ends beautifully: not with damnation, but with a hug.
Lloyd is bringing a new generation to the theater, and deserves credit for that. This is theater you blu-tack to your bedroom walls; Marlowe as a two-hour music video. The flip side is superficiality, and it often feels as though Lloyd isn’t chasing down ideas so much as dressing them up. At best, it’s a headrush; at worst, a headache — a jumble of depression and suicide, celebrity cults and Internet culture that means this Faustus fails to cohere.