Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – until 4 August 2016
Much of what makes The RSC great is embodied in Maria Aberg’s Doctor Faustus, now playing in Stratford’s Swan Theatre. A classic Elizabethan text that is given an invigorating and challenging interpretation and presented in a display of top-notch stagecraft. For students of modern theatre, Aberg’s show should be compulsory viewing.
Dr Faustus’ pact with the Devil is legendary. Having amassed all human knowledge and keen to broaden his horizons yet further, Dr Faustus summons up Lucifer’s demon Mephistophilis. After some hard persuading a deal is struck, Faustus’ veins are cut open and a contract signed in his blood. He is to be given 24 years of superhuman immortal powers on earth, after which his soul will belong to the Devil in eternal damnation. As Faustus is presented with the 7 Deadly Sins and assorted amoral choices, Marlowe’s allegory is clear – that the temptation to evil lies within us all.
In a novel touch, two actors share the leading roles. They enter the stage identically clad and simultaneously strike a match each. He whose match burns out last leaves the stage, to return as Mephistophilis. On press night, Oliver Ryan was to play the title role with the lean scot, Sandy Grierson, shortly to return shirtless, in an immaculately tailored white suit and in a neat touch, with charred blackened bare feet.
This is a brutal, bloody and above all desperately physical production with Ryan’s Faustus on stage virtually throughout the 1hr 45 one act play. Faustus paints a crude pentagram across the Swan’s black stage to summon the Devil, the bucket of whitewash slopping in his desperation. As the evening unfolds, so does the Doctor become more and more stained by the painted mess that he has created.
Mephistophilis summons up a nightmarish cohort of scholars to confront Faustus on his journey– black clad and hatted and almost suggesting an ensemble of bottle-dancing Jews – and it is in their movement that much of this show’s magic lies. Ayse Tashkiran choreographs his actors with an infernal ingenuity (that at other times hints at the zombies from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video), meanwhile up in the gods (natch) Jonathan Williams six-piece band deliver the classy yet disquieting dischord of Orlando Gough’s musical backdrop with a chilling resonance. The costuming and design (credit Naomi Dawson) is at once simple and grotesque, exemplified best perhaps by Natey Jones’ transvestite manifestation of the deadly sin Lechery. He’s all legs and frock, complete with outrageously kinky heels, though it is Ruth Everett’s Wrath, sporting a wig that’s half black and half white and which offers a troubling suggestion of anger stemming from a psychiatric disorder, which offers up another of this production’s perceptive yet brilliant conceits.
Sandy Grierson and the scholars
Ryan gives his soul to the role as he finds his all-knowing self so knowingly played by Grierson’s perpetually suave and sardonic emissary. It all makes for compelling, unsettling theatre.
Perhaps the most troubling image of all is that of Jade Croot’s Helen Of Troy. This child-woman, with a face that launched a thousand ships, provided by the Devil to satisfy Faustus’ lust, launches her gamine youthfulness at the Doctor. Their passion rises in a whirling embrace, until, spent, her prone body is lifeless in Faustus’ arms as he fast recognises his impending doom. Like much of the play, the moment is both beautiful and terrifying.
Runs in repertoire until 4th AugustPhoto credit: Helen Maybanks