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Monday 12 September 2011

Wittenberg, Play by David Davalos, Gate Theatre Notting Hill, London, 4* out of 5

In William Shakespeare's Hamlet we are told that the Danish Prince in his youth was a scholar in the German town of Wittenberg. In John Marlowe's version of Dr. Faustus part of the action takes place in the town of Wittenberg. And Martin Luther, a historical figure larger then life, wrote his 95 theses against the catholic church's practice of selling indulgences in Wittenberg, where they were nailed to a church door or two. The consequences for the history of the Church and Politics in Europe were immense.

The premise of this play by the American playwright David Davalos is that Hamlet, Faustus and Luther were in Wittenberg at the same time. Young Hamlet has Dr. John Faustus as his philosophy tutor and the catholic priest Martin Luther as his theology tutor. All three characters are as yet blissfully unaware of the roles they will play in literature and history, respectively.

Dr. Faustus represents the search for knowledge and the belief in reason and science. Martin Luther believes that all comes from god and is revealed to us through our own careful reading and interpretation of the one original text God left us with, the Bible. Hamlet represents the very sensitive and intelligent student whose station in life demands decisiveness but whose character is racked with doubt and fear of madness.

Of the three characters in Davalos' play Dr Faustus is the most multifaceted: he is not only lecturer in Philosophy but also Luther's general practitioner prescribing remedies for constipation and moonlights as a crooner in Wittenberg's student watering hole. He is also ready for the love of a good woman; but is the good woman ready for commitment.

For the enjoyment of this play it helps to be acquainted with the canon of world literature Hamlet, Faust the history of the Reformation Luther (and his bĂȘte noire Tetzel) and Copernicus. And it helps to have a passing acquaintance with key questions asked by the Enlightenment.

Davalos would not deny being inspired by Tom Stoppard and especially the play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” which also features characters from Hamlet in an inventive and intelligent manner.

While Davalos' Wittenberg does not reach the heights of Stoppard's brilliance, Wittenberg is a funny, intelligent and interesting play, entertainingly touching on big philosophical, theological and human questions.

Christopher Haydon's production is full of energy. Oliver Townsend's set is excellent and the acting performances are very good indeed. Sean Campion as Dr. John Faust has the best lines most varied part to show off his considerable talents opposite Andrew Frame's strong performance as Luther. The long-lasting warm applause from the audience was fully deserved.


  1. Good review Alex. I would like to see it yet I cannot.

  2. Great concept brought to life by a great review!

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