Wittenberg, by David Davalos, Red Stitch, Until November 3.
Wittenberg intertwines the fates of three famous literary figures connected to the German city. It promises “comical-historical-pastoral” but turns out to resemble, at least in this production, a kind of footloose university revue.
The action takes the form of what the early moderns called psychomachia (literally, a struggle for the soul). The soul in question is Prince Hamlet’s, at Wittenberg uni before his father’s murder, and the contest for the Dane’s mind plays out between two very different teachers: Doctor Faustus, the philosopher-medico who sells his soul to the Devil, and the reforming zeal of Martin Luther.
Battle lines are drawn on a set fringed by skulls and backed by a feculent water-feature. Nimble arguments around reason vs. faith and free will vs. destiny are thrown together with inane intertextual puns and immature buffoonery that runs to Ezra Bix’s Faustus singing a karaoke version of Que Sera Sera, for instance, or passing a fat joint to Hamlet to relieve his patient’s crushing anxiety.
Bix is sly and charismatic, but Josh Price’s Luther steals the show with his wildly funny clowning. Price achieves an elastic and ruthlessly clever religious parody that can take even the deadest gags and resurrect them in a blaze of quivering, goggle-eyed intensity. And his vision of Luther preaching from the Bible’s sauciest section, the Song of Songs, brings the house down.
Alas, Brett Ludeman’s Hamlet brings down the play, not the house. Miscast and misdirected, he wanders the stage gormless and flat and lost. Ludeman can be a fantastic actor, but here he sounds uncomfortable at almost every level – with the verse, with the comedy, with the character – and watching him it is hard not to feel a stab of flesh-melting melancholy.
Under Jane Griffiths’ direction, Ludeman seems to be in a different play to the other performers. It’s such a disappointing showing it’s hard to know what to advise. That old chestnut about actors playing themselves as Hamlet might apply, but this is a Hamlet lampoon, so probably relaxed self-parody is in order.
It has some laugh-out-loud moments, but Wittenberg is marred by uncharacteristically uneven acting for Red Stitch, and the noticeable mismatch of text and performance style doesn’t help it rise above the groaners.