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Wittenberg

A Tragical-Comical-Historical in Two Acts
By David Davalos
Gate Theatre, Notting Hill
(2011)

Wittenberg production photo

Still going strong, still good for many more miles, that's Hamlet for you - thank goodness. How many have eviscerated it for their own ends? From Chekhov to Tom Stoppard and now the award winning American playwright David Davalos with exuberant verve, nerve, and wit steals its best lines. But then, its disquisition on life is with us still, rough-hew it how we will.

Following in Stoppard's Travesties footsteps Davalos has set up a fictitious meeting in late 1517 between Dr. John Faustus and Dr. Martin Luther, university colleagues in Wittenberg, and their student Hamlet, a 'double major', indecisive as ever. What better tutors for him than a man who is ready to sell his soul to the devil and a man who questions the authority of the church, but has strong faith in the Bible (which incidentally has no mention of Purgatory, but wine in all but one of its books)?

Wittenberg is an impish prequel to Hamlet, a possible explanation for Hamlet's tortured psyche, a jocund nimble dissertation on 'To be or not to be', or rather on 'To believe or not to believe'. Two hard hitters, both father substitutes, and Hamlet the ball batted between reason and faith. With terrific pace and timing. No wonder he goes mad. Or thinks he does. Too much Moroccan candy at uni (naughty Faustus) to loosen him up...

And let's not forget the Eternal Feminine - Gretchen (with Tetzel's indulgences that excuse her sins down her bosom), Helen (with bunny ears and tail wants more than to be a faculty wife, she has slept with both the Pope and Emperor after all), Mary Mother of God, and Lady Voltemand bringer of bad news (Sophie Brittain taking on all four with a glint in her eye).

Philosophy made light, a Jumpers of a play, Wittenberg's irreverent seriousness is masked by agile word play (sanctimony/sanctity), student humour, sex, bar room songs (Faustus has a regular spot in the student tavern The Bunghole), deliberately crazy anachronisms (an Apple laptop), and masses of energy, thanks not least to Sean Campion's tremendous performance as the man with an insatiable appetite for life.

A 'devil' and an 'angel' on each shoulder, Hamlet (Edward Franklin very good) is confused, he has bad dreams. But the devil always has the best lines, and Campion plays him as a cunning rogue with an Irish brogue. Who wouldn't fall for him, his reasoning, his thirst for life, as he spars with his po-faced mate Luther (Andrew Frame) troubled not only by the church's (a 'sclerotic cult' according to Faustus) greedy ways but also by constipation.

Dr Faustus has a bane for everything. 'Qahfe' for Luther, which releases his bowels and brain - his 95 theses, pinned by Faustus on the church door in German translation, can be directly attributed to it. He himself quaffs his uncle George's wine, dug up from hallowed ground - yes, a grave-digger scene. And a skull scene

If you're a Hamlet groupie Wittenberg will prove irresistible. Faustus ends the play singing Che sera, sera, what will be, will be. Luther stands by his beliefs, and Hamlet goes home to take up the crown of Denmark "If it be now, 'tis not to come if it be not to come, it will be now if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all". Their words mingle. There is a divinity that shapes our ends

Is anything resolved? No, though it depends on which team you support. But philosophising is all we have, words, words, words - back and forth like a game of tennis - Hamlet takes up the racquet for the university of Wittenberg against Laertes of the University of Paris. St. Augustine, Aristotle, and Plato are quoted. Copernicus, and Tetzel are part of the larger picture. For a play of only eighty pages, Davalos packs in a hell of a lot.

The quick repartee flies free, the longer soliloquies hit the ground, the attempts at iambic pentameters are strained, and Faustus' songs frankly terrible, but there are a lot of knowing laughs, as good as a nod and a wink.

Oliver Townsend's set design owes something to Hogwarts - Faustus' cluttered study, its back walls opening up magically into a tavern, its floor a trapdoor to hell. Every inch of space is used. The set is awash with visual jokes, clues and clever props.

Christopher Haydon's direction is slick. A man enters down the aisle, hammering flyers on the wooden pillars - it must be Luther putting up his theses. No, we're wrong-footed from the start. It's Dr. Faustus posting up his tavern gig.

Laughter and exercise for the brain, what more could you want Faustus tells Hamlet to live his life on his own terms, and Hamlet tells Faustus to live his not as a cautionary tale for others. How life tricks us. There are no answers, only questions. "The truth is that there is no end to the thinking." But we might as well have fun doing it.

Till 1st October 2011

Reviewer: Vera Liber