Posts Tagged ‘ Anna Maxwell Martin ’

A Fearsome Foursome of Fausts

London has become a city of damned souls.  And one damned soul, in particular: Dr John Faust is everywhere.Faust Young Vic by Vesturport and Reykjavík City Theater Faust’s tale is one of ambition, hell-fire and damnation: since medieval times his story has fascinated and horrified.

Goethe grappled with this anti-hero throughout his life, Marlowe made it into his most famous play and composers Berlioz and Gounod set it to music. More recently, the Fates have conspired to saturate 21st-century London with Faust’s tragedy. Why do we poor sinners keep coming back to it?

BBC Radio3 were the first to jump into the inferno with a production whose ambition was matched only by its protagonist’s. In September, Sam West starred as Goethe’s Faust opposite Toby Jones as Mephistopheles; Derek Jacobi and Anna Maxwell Martin also featured. ENO is currently staging Gounod’s five-act opera (based on Goethe’s text) and the Young Vic has an unorthodox circus production, again based loosely on Goethe.

Dr Faustus with MephistophelesThe Faust story first appeared in the Faustbuch in 1587 and was initially popular as a tale of damnation: a sixteenth-century scandal story. But if the original medieval tale was one of religious finger-wagging, Goethe had a completely different agenda. His Faust is an idealist: like Marlowe’s creation, Goethe’s hero seeks knowledge and self-realization.

Good and evil, black and white, innocence and guilt: Goethe and Marlowe blurred these previously impermeable boundaries. In doing so they created dramatic texts which are more relevant now than ever.

Marlowe, who was accused of being an atheist*(among other things), had little interest in black and white morality. Instead, his play is a tragedy: his hero is not evil, but human; the tragedy springs not from an evil soul, but Faust’s hunger for knowledge.

The relentless quest for knowledge is familiar to us. Modern microscopes and telescopes have opened new visual worlds, scientists have delved into the workings of our own bodies and developments in health care mean we are living longer than ever.

Only last month, Stephen Hawking declared that science has displaced God. Marlowe’s Renaissance man would be eminently at home in our world of scepticism, science and selfishness. Faust’s desire to be young again (in Goethe’s reading) is a pre-figuring of our own society’s desire to look youthful. Marlowe’s Faust asks to meet Helen (of the long legs) of Troy – the most beautiful woman ever to have lived: of course he didn’t have the modern men’s mag, Playboy (…on second thoughts, I won’t add a hyperlink there), to turn to.

Faust is a thoroughly modern man: disillusioned with life, nihilistic and solipsistic. His story’s current vogue is no coincidence: modern audiences identify with Faust, his temptations are our own, his desires are ones we recognize. The chilling lesson for modern audiences is that we no longer need God to damn us: we already do that ourselves.

*in the Baines note: “A note Containing the opinion of one Christopher Marly Concerning his Damnable Judgment of Religion, and scorn of gods word”

Review: Measure for Measure

The Rape of the Sabine Women

Almeida Theatre, Islington

Director: Michael Attenborough

Against a backdrop of Cortona’s ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’, two lap dancers writhe and shudder, shedding money as their bodies shake to the music. Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure is a play of extremes and absolutes. In Michael Attenborough’s production at the Almeida theatre the line between virtue and sin is tested and stretched by everyone from the brothel-keeper to a nun.

When Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, decides he wants a break, he leaves his deputy, the pious Angleo, in charge and pretends to leave the city. Within hours the city’s forgotten laws are being brought against bawds, brothel-keepers and “fornicators”. When one Claudio is arrested for sleeping with his fiancé and making her pregnant, his sister, Isabella – a novice nun – goes to Angelo to ask that her brother be pardoned. Angelo’s pious exterior cracks, however, and he makes Isabella an indecent proposal: her brother’s life for her chastity. Meanwhile the Duke creeps through the city in disguise, meddling and manoeuvring to bring about the complicated dénouement.

Where Attenborough excels is in making this dark “problem” play coherent. Thus the bewildering Duke – who is both a seemingly sadistic Machiavellian puppeteer figure and a wilfully negligent and hypocritical ruler – becomes, if not sympathetic, at least rational in Ben Miles’ portrayal. Anna Maxwell Martin’s Isabella is a woman aware of, and terrified by her own sexuality. When she asks for greater restraint, it is out of fear, not piety. She fidgets like a caged animal and turns on the Margery-Kempe stuff without warning. Far from an other-worldly being, Maxwell Martin’s Isabella constantly gestures towards her own body, clasps a crucifix to her lap and at one heart-stopping moment almost kisses a friar. Attenborough’s ending is a master-stroke: Isabella’s silence at the Duke’s marriage proposal is usually taken to be a mark of submissive acquiescence. Not here. Here, it is a mark of defiance and sends a shudder through the thrilled audience.

Rory Kinnear as Isabella’s male counterpart, Angelo, trembles, slobbers and spits like a man possessed – first by power and second, by lust. Kinnear allows Angelo’s face to be as an open-book: the precise moment he falls, we see the shock flash in his eyes. His self-loathing, his arrogance, his nervousness are all writ large in his features. Elsewhere, Lloyd Hutchinson as Lucio steals many of his scenes and Flaminia Cinque’s Mistress Overdone is judged to gruff-voiced perfection.

The whole sits easily in Lez Brotherston’s slickly versatile rotating set, which takes its cue from the play itself – one of Shakespeare’s most slippery. The set changes its visage with ease. Aided only by the most subtle of hints from David Hersey’s lighting design, we are transported from the Duke’s regal office, to the red light district. The back wall splits and suddenly we’re in the grounds of a monastery – and then a prison.

However, in his haste to make the play coherent, an important aspect of the plot is side-lined. Claudio and Juliet, the over-eager affianced lovers, become mere plot devices and as such the pathos of their story is lost. Indeed, Maxwell Martin’s Isabella seems hardly to notice that her (supposedly dead) brother has reappeared in the final scene. This is a production which picks at the scab of man’s fallibility and shows the weakness intrinsic in any absolute position. ‘We are all frail,’ quips Angelo early on, not quite believing it. By the end of Attenborough’s production, though, this has been savagely confirmed.