The Young Vic and Natural Nylon
Natural Nylon is a new arts production company of which much will be heard. There are two reasons for this. First, if the quality of Doctor Faustus is anything go by, they will be winning awards. Secondly, the company's founders include some of the hottest young stars of British film such as Ewan MacGregor, Sadie Frost, Jonny Lee Miller and the star of this excellent production, Jude Law.
The company is ambitious and intends to make films of many of their stage works. They could easily start with Faustus which shows Law at this best. On his last appearance at the Young Vic, he didn't really convince opposite Eve Best in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. This time, the part could have been written for him.
The production team creates a really effective atmosphere with minimal support from props. David Lan's direction is sure, creating a balance between fun and fear, while Matthew Richardson's stunning lighting and Murray Gold's generally minimalist music with Crispian Covell's sound take the audience into a believable living hell.
The auditorium is set with a long narrow strip of stage with a pit for detritus thrown away by the actors. This is clearly symbolic, possibly of time passing on Faustus' strictly defined period of debauch before he has to surrender his soul to the devil. It could as easily refer to today's society with its excessive consumption and throwaway attitudes. Indeed, one of the real strengths of Lan's vision of Doctor Faustus is that, although the play is 400 years old, it seems so completely contemporary.
The pivotal characters are Law (Faustus) and Richard McCabe as Mephistophilis, the Devil's envoy. The former starts off as a young doctor who wishes to explore the potential of the world (rather like a young man testing drugs today). He moves through every type of pleasure including debunking the Pope and becoming the Emperor's favourite. He then enters into a downward spiral as he approaches the end of his 24-year period of anti-grace. This is where Law excels. He portrays panic and despair beautifully and really gets the sympathy of those who should know better. One is never tempted to ask - why should Faustus not pay the ultimate price for pleasure as so many junkies have?
By contrast with Law's emotional performance, McCabe, recently an excellent Iago at the RSC, is all calm, threatening evil until Faustus reaches rock bottom. As he lies writhing and sobbing on the ground, reserves all spent, Mephistophilis comes to life launching a tirade of hatred.
The support is good with Tom Smith, always a good comic actor, adding both levity as a clown-like servant and terror as the bad side of Faustus' nature. His alter ego, the good side is also well played by Ofo Uhiara.
The programme notes ask the question as to whether the play is a modern tragedy or a morality play. In David Lan's eyes, it cleverly manages to be both. The accelerating descent of an intelligent young medical man is also seen satirically as the penalty for an excess of pride. This resonates as much today as it must have in the late 16th Century.
A trip to the Young Vic to see Jude Law in this gripping production will not disappoint. A word of warning, getting tickets may not be easy.
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher