Once again my theatre bookings have unintentionally thrown up themed weeks, and this time it's theology week. Incoming Artistic Director Christopher Haydon gives us, perhaps, a taste of what he'll be presenting when he takes over next year, with the UK premiere (apart from a rehearsed reading by the Globe earlier this year) of American playwright David Davalos' 2008 play Wittenberg. This was the penultimate preview performance, with the show opening to critics this Thursday.
Davalos' high concept is to unite on stage Witttenberg University's three most famous scholars, both real and fictional: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Edward Franklin) has a troubling dream and opens up to his two favourite professors, Martin Luther (Andrew Frame) who teaches him theology, and philosopher Doctor John Faustus (Sean Campion.) The two scholars offer him different views on the world and also interact with each other, their constant exchanges of ideas influencing the ways they think and helping create the conflict that will be present in Hamlet when his father dies. Described knowingly as "A Tragical-Comical-Historical" the play has its tongue in its cheek but does also make a genuine attempt to address the way we understand the world, and how that changed around Luther's time. Although entertaining, the first act does feel a bit like a wasted opportunity, getting mired in theological discussion, while Franklin's eager Hamlet is tangled up in the constant in-jokes about his own and other Shakespeare plays, and dialogue largely written in cod-Shakesperean tongue-twisters. I found the second act much better though, suddenly the core idea gets used to its full dramatic potential as all three characters, consciously or not, help lead the other two to their famous fates. Though mostly an ensemble piece, Campion's energetic Faustus does seem to have the lion's share of the story, but Frame's grubby, weary Luther is a notable performance too - only Sophie Brittain, in her professional debut as all the female roles, was a bit broad for my liking.
One area where the Gate tends to punch above its weight is in its sets, and designer Oliver Townsend doesn't disappoint with a distressed, anachronistic design filled with detail and little touches that get revealed as the show goes on, including a visual gag referencing the National Theatre's Hamlet from last year. The costumes are similarly anachronistic, with details like denim doublet and hose. It's the first production I've seen from Haydon but it bodes well for his time in charge of the venue, I think he's handled well a play which has a tendency to lose its way, but better late than never lives up to the promise of its interesting conceit.
Wittenberg by David Davalos is booking until the 1st of October at the Gate Theatre.