Doctor Faustus

I must confess I wasn’t overly thrilled when it was announced that Maria Aberg would be directing the RSC’s forthcoming production of Doctor Faustus. I really wasn’t keen on her version of The White Devil a few years ago, but the reviews of Faustus made me decide to give it a go. I’m glad I did – Aberg’s spare style works well with Christopher Marlowe’s play, and while it’s a non-traditional production, it is atmospheric and memorable.
The roles of Faustus and Mephistopheles are shared by Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan. The two actors walk onto the darkened stage at the beginning of the play and light matches. Whoever’s match goes out first leaves the stage; the remaining performer stays behind and becomes Faustus. At the performance I saw, the auditorium was silent as Oliver Ryan became Faustus and took up his place centre stage.

The oft-told tale of Doctor Faustus tells how he makes a pact with Lucifer to be granted knowledge and power for a period of twenty-four years, after which time his soul belongs to the Devil. This production is interesting in that it suggests Faustus and his servant Mephistopheles are two sides of the same coin, the latter resentful at being kicked out of heaven, and a kind of foreshadowing of Faustus’ eventual fate.

It’s an interesting touch to have Faustus’ friends also playing the angels, another example of doubling in the play. Naomi Dawson’s set is sparse but effective, strewn with boxes: the large pentagram drawn by Faustus to summon up the Devil remains on stage throughout the rest of the play, a reminder of the bargain he has made.

The Seven Deadly Sins segment always strikes me as an excuse for the director to have a bit of fun, and here it was no exception, the motley group revelling in their sins. The text has been heavily cut to fit into a running time of under two hours with no interval: I thought this was very effective at showing the decline of Faustus’ fortunes.

The most memorable aspect of the play for me was the Helen of Troy sequence. Wordlessly choreographed, it was heartbreakingly beautiful as Helen (Jade Croot) seemed to represent everything that Faustus had lost in his life: beauty, innocence and happiness.

A memorable production, I’d be interested in seeing it with the actors the other way around, but because who plays whom is decided on stage each night I don’t think it is viable. Still, it’s certainly worth seeing when it comes to the Barbican later in the year.

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