Wittenberg – Richard Hilliar and the endless excitement of words. (Theatre Review)

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In Wittenberg, David Davalos has created an ongoing fictional argument between Faustus and Luther that focusses primarily on Luther’s growing concern regarding inconsistencies of faith between himself and the church, but inevitably touches the famous Faustus as he tries to persuade Luther to think outside of the prescribes limits of theology. The church will famously denounce Faustus fo these ideas, claiming he has made a pact with the devil (actually what the Church really condemned him for was astrology, but Davalos fashionably leaves that out), and Davalos paints him as a kind of antichristian conscience whispering in the ear of those he battles with. From Goethe’s version of the story, the Devil will reward Faustus for his deal with the love of Helen of Troy, and Davalos resurrects her as a fallen nun whom Faustus wants to marry, a woman condemned by Luther.

With history this rich, the opportunity for language games, parody, quotes and metaphor are endless and Davalos takes huge advantage creating a work that is vibrantly alive, funny, and intellectually engaging at the same time. He has performed as Dr Faustus in the past, and its clear from the time he gives to the character that he wrote it from his own heart, and wrapped the rest of play around him, in part rescuing him from a history that may not bode so favourable. It provides a challenge for the rest of the characters, especially the one female who plays multiple archetypes called together ‘The Divine Feminine’, but who is really a satellite around the key players. It’s a flaw in Davalos’ play and takes a special kind of actor to bring these characters out so that they are more than sounding boards for Faustus. Because it is Faustus’ play, and because the play is so good in all its other aspects, it takes a focussed director and a talented cast to bring Wittenberg to a well-rounded experience that ignores, or manages Davalos’ Faustian bias.

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Richard Hilliar has accomplished this with Brevity Theatre’s latest production being shown at the Old Fitzroy Theatre. He’s assembled a talented cast, committed to their characters and determined to bring every line, every nuance of this dense theatre experience to dynamic life. It’s a wordy play, but Hilliar has obviously placed an emphasis on ensuring every line is heard, delivered with clarity and precision, including space for audience reaction that doesn’t affect the flow of dialogue. It means not a brilliant second of the writing is missed, but even better, it draws the audience into the world of the characters, because so many of the “in” jokes are accessible, and lead on to deeper word plays and connections that become easier to pick up as the play progresses.

Hilliar is aided in this through a dynamic and exciting set and lighting ensemble designed by the very talented Benjamin Brockman. The set of Wittenberg is reason enough to see the play, intricately designed and yet carrying the robust weight of words, sentences, paragraphs and books. The papers of the worlds great books rain down around the characters as if to immerse them further in their own constructed reality and minds play on the dialogue between them. Luther and Faustus look as though they are both couched in history and creating it, as their language mingles with the literary storm around them. For several crucial speeches, Brockman dramatically draws down the lighting so that characters are elevated to the famous Shakespearean stage of their own life. At one point, Alexander Butt’s Hamlet, combined with Benjamin Brockman’s lighting brought tears to my eyes as I become swept up in the beauty flooding over me.

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Wittenberg is, above all things, a character play that deals with several crucial personas and their influence on the world of literature and thought. Therefore, the best cast is required to pull off a play that could so easily become lost in its own ambitions. David Woodland rises to the Faustus challenge with a charismatic elegance, painting Faustus as an intellectual rogue, his causal manner masking a fierce mental independence that borders on reactionary. Passion belongs to love – everything else is open to debate in Woodland’s Faustus. Woodland navigates the shifting sands of his characters moods and ideas smoothly, giving over the appearance of control admirable in all those skilled at making their feisty point. Woodland is perfectly countered against a soulful Nick Curnow as Luther, whose intelligence smolders beneath the piety Curnow has Luther wear like a uniform. As the play progresses Curnow brings out a potent Luther, with all the courage Faustus accuses him of lacking sitting in waiting for his theology to be in place. Where Davalos might be accused of making a bit of a simpleton of Luther, particularly toward the start of Wittenberg, Curnow spices him with his demons so that Faustus accusations always occur a step or two behind Luther’s own internal questioning. Alexander Butt is a light and cheerful Hamlet, his depths declared when called upon, but his innocence connecting him to his youth and inexperience. His wide-eyed willingness to absorb everything around him – even Faustus’ encouragement to question everything – is shrouded in a gentle comic timing that erupts into moments of passion, particularly a remarkable monologue in the first half, delivered so strongly, I teared up from its beauty.

Lana Kershaw is given the challenging task of making something interesting and strong of Davalos’ … lets generously call it lack of interest shall we?… in female characters, particularly lumping all the women in the play into one female and calling her “the Divine Feminine”. Kerhsaw rescues Davalos here, bringing so much life and poignancy to her lines, at the end we feel as though she has been on the stage for the bulk of the play. She is particularly striking as the mercurial Helen, almost stealing the scene from Woodland.

Brevity Theatre Company have put on a wonderful Wittenberg, performing it a remarkably intimate feel for the text and a generous desire to see the work come to a new sort of life. Highly recommended.

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