Putting the Wit in Wittenberg: Review of Brevity Theatre’s Wittenberg
David Davalos’ play, Wittenberg (2008) currently being performed by Brevity Theatre company presents a literary hybrid, acting as a prequel to both Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, throwing Martin Luther into the mix for good measure. Set in 1517 at the University of Wittenberg Hamlet is cast in the role of a young undergraduate with Faustus and Luther as his respective philosophy and theology lecturers who are attempting to woo the prince to pick their course for his major.
Whilst an audience may want some familiarity with the plays Davalos is drawing on (as well as a passing knowledge of the philosophical theories being debated) this is nevertheless a very clever play, with many a pun, plenty of witty comebacks and a wealth of brilliant one-liners; and to his credit he never talks down to the audience.
At its heart the play makes an examination of the old debate of faith and fate versus reason and self-determination, as embodied by Luther and Faustus. Stuck in the middle, and torn between the two in typical indecisiveness is of course Hamlet. To complicate matters Hamlet is in possession of Copernicus’ findings that the earth revolves around the sun – having explosive consequences for his two professors, and their outlooks. Now, whilst the play may be billed as a prequel to Hamlet, the young prince is actually a foil. Hamlet acts rather as a metaphorical battleground, fuelling the fire as the philosophers debate their positions. As such the play is a little light on plot which means the actors have to work doubly hard to hold the audience throughout their debates, and for the most part the trio is successful.
David Woodland is the standout as the self-determined Dr Faustus. He fills the stage with an easy charisma, and manages the dialogue with aplomb. Woodland mixes devil’s advocacy with the enthusiasm of a spirited academic, giving balance to the Faustian hubris. There is a simple charm to Woodland and in this way he is Brevity’s Richard Roxburgh. (He also plays a mean ukulele).
Nick Curnow makes a good fist of the conflicted theologian Dr Martin Luther, and he arguably has the hardest job in this play. It is hard to make God sexy, as religious text can sound too preachy. Whilst Curnow may have unwittingly fallen into this trap at times, he nevertheless infused the role with a sense of genuine hope. It would have been interesting if he had maintained the original strictness with which he was introduced (affording him more gravitas) then gradually revealing his own passions and conflicts. Even so, Curnow was still convincing as this godly revolutionary.
Alexander Butt plays the young Hamlet, a surprisingly smaller role, sandwiched between the two academics. Butt looks slightly overwhelmed at times, and there are a few choices that end up looking overdone, but this is possibly due to certain directorial choices (for instance, a dream sequence is delivered with a force of anger, which ineffectively communicates the inner turmoil that Hamlet is so famous for). However, Butt certainly looks the part of a prince and is quite hilarious during the tennis match against Laertes.
The play is quite a fun trip (especially for lit-buffs) however at times a little more plot would have been welcome. Richard Hillar, as director, offers a firm staging, enhanced by Benjamin Brockman’s wonderful set and lighting design that has strings of pages from the three referenced texts hanging from the rafters, creating an almost magical atmosphere.
Brevity Theatre’s Wittenberg is playing with the Sydney Independent Theatre Company at the Old Fitzroy Hotel until the 25th of January. For more information see: http://www.sitco.net.au/