Director Adam Henderson and his team are giving Wittenberg a precise, committed, and creative production. But, despite its intellectual ambitions, the play itself is boring.
Writer David Davalos has set his script at Hamlet’s university, Wittenberg, in Germany, and it’s 1517, so Hamlet is currently enrolled. One of the prince’s profs is the fictional central character from Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy Dr. Faustus — although, when we meet Dr. John Faustus in Wittenberg, he hasn’t sold his soul to the devil yet. Dr. Faustus’s best friend and intellectual sparring partner is Martin Luther, the real-life historical figure who was a key player in the Protestant Reformation.
The body of the play consists of debates between Faustus and Luther, with Faustus championing agnosticism and Luther taking the side of faith.
Davalos’s sympathies are obviously with the swaggering, wise-cracking, sexually hungry Faustus. There’s a huge tell. When Luther wrote his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, it was a historically pivotal act of religious rebellion: in his theses, Luther decried the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences, which allowed the faithful to buy absolution for their sins. In doing so, he challenged the authority of the pope, which got him excommunicated. But Davalos goes so far in setting Luther up as a religious conservative — in contrast to the more freewheeling Faustus, that, in Davalos’s telling, it’s Faustus who makes public Luther’s challenge to the church. By denying Luther’s courage, Davalos rigs the debate in Faustus’s favour — and this is just the most egregious example of how he does that.
The arguments between Faustus and Luther also become brutally repetitive.
The famously indecisive Hamlet is in the middle of all of this, torn between his teachers’ approaches and psychologically dislocated by the intellectual upheavals of the time. When Hamlet hears about Copernicus’s proof that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around, the idea literally sets him staggering.
So there’s no shortage of intellectual material. But what’s the story? What’s at stake? Are Faustus and Luther fighting for control of Hamlet’s perspective? Kinda. Sorta. Maybe. But, if that’s the central conflict, the consequences of winning or losing aren’t clear. Mostly, it feels like Faustus and Luther just want to out-reason one other, but I couldn’t bring myself to care. My positions on Catholicism, sex outside of marriage, and the rotation of the planets are already well established.
That said, United Players is presenting about as lively a production as you could hope for. Under Henderson’s direction, Matthew Bissett, who’s playing Faustus, and Misha Kobiliansky, who’s playing Luther, are always completely intellectually and emotionally engaged. That means they’ve made literally thousands of specific choices in their understanding of the text. And that rigor results in clear and vivacious performances.
I’ve seen Bissett’s work before, so I wasn’t surprised by his success as the horny, intellectually rigorous Faustus, but Kobiliansky is new to me and I was so impressed by his mastery of the character and its potential: its ideas, its comedy, and most impressively, Luther’s passion.
Dylan Nouri’s performance as Hamlet is significantly less responsive and more predetermined — although, to his credit, Nouri increasingly found his groove the night I attended. Deborah Vieyra brings wit and intelligence to a group of female characters collectively — and annoyingly — identified as The Eternal Feminine. If, as a playwright, you really want to honour female experience, I suggest you give the women in your plays more fully developed characters — and more stage time.
Before I finish, I also want to sing the praises of Henderson’s direction. He too has made scores and scores of creative choices, including in his use of video and, eccentrically, his use of the adjustable heights of an office chair.
I admire this production. I’m considerably less enthusiastic about the script.
WITTENBERG by David Davalos. Directed by Adam Henderson. A United Players production at the Jericho Arts Centre on Saturday, November 26. Continues until December 4. Tickets and information
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