Mark Wilson sees Marlowe as theatre's first star writer: a spy, an atheist, a homosexual and one of the most notorious celebrities of his day. Although he only lived until age 29, he achieved the status of poetic genius, effectively establishing blank verse as the dominant style for English drama, which Shakespeare would soon after employ to such great effect. He wrote several great plays - 'Dido, Queen of Carthage', 'Tamburlaine' and 'Doctor Faustus' to name a few - but is now most remembered for his controversial lifestyle and the unusual circumstances of his death.
Wilson is clearly fascinated by Marlowe's character and has employed considerable skill and some tricky decisions in bringing him to life in a way audiences will appreciate. Most striking of these artistic choices was the decision to have Marlowe speak not just in modern language, but also with a thick Aussie drawl, using the kind of blunt, down-to-earth, often crass colloquialism of middle Australia.
The story itself is told through a series of overlapping vignettes, beginning with Marlowe as a schoolboy with an enquiring and aspiring mind and taking him through his conflict-ridden university days, flamboyant partying and fraternisation with legions of random men, his tumultuous life and career as a writer, his scathingly irreverent atheism and finally his untimely and mysterious demise. It's at various moments funny, tragic and poignant, and at all times extremely intense.
As a character, Wilson's Marlowe is something of a cross between Freddy Mercury and Richard Dawkins - camp, cheeky and irrepressibly outrageous on the one hand, charming, erudite and fiercely and uncompromisingly intellectual on the other. Wilson clearly enjoys playing this character and does so with strong voice and disciplined movement that hints at the care and rigorous rehearsal that has obviously gone into this production.
While To Keep Men In Awe is immediately and consistently enjoyable, there are one or two nagging criticisms that prevent it from crossing the coveted gap from good to great. Chief among these is the sense, or rather the lack of it, of being drawn into the performance. It feels throughout as if one is watching an extremely capable man play Christopher Marlowe, rather than watching Christopher Marlowe himself. This may in fact be an artistic decision, but an unfortunate one in my view as it makes it difficult to access the deeper layer of comic, almost frivolous self-fulfilling tragedy that drives the play and which one can't help but feel inspired Wilson to write it in the first place. This was confirmed to me when I noticed the biggest laughs and applause came from the crass and the outrageous Aussie interpretation rather than the subtleties of Marlowe's mind. A case of the tail wagging the dog.
Also, at times I felt Wilson got a little too carried away with his portrayal. A good part of the play is given over to Marlowe's thoughts on god and religion, with words denouncing religion and Catholicism in particular that are striking not only for their wit and perception but also for their unthinkable heresy at the time. Warming to his theme, Wilson delivered some of this monologue in a style reminiscent of Chris Taylor in the dying episodes of The Chaser's War on Everything - that smug, faux-newsy voice that begs to be rewarded for its own cleverness.
All in all these are minor, though noticeable, flaws. Overall, To Keep Men In Awe is a fun and refreshingly original performance that inspires audiences to learn more about the themes and events it portrays, something to which all good theatre would do well to aspire.
To Keep Men In Awe: Christopher Marlowe
Written and performed by Mark Wilson
Venue: fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane Melbourne
Dates: 21 - 24 Jan 2010
Times: Wed - Fri 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm; Sun 5pm
Tickets: Full $20, Concession $15, Group(+10) $15
Bookings: www.fortyfivedownstairs.com | 03 9662 9966