Most theatre goers are familiar with walking through the auditorium doors and having anywhere between some and no idea of what they’re about to see. Now imagine being an actor, preparing for the show ahead, uncertain of which part you’re going to play. Precisely. This is the situation that befalls Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan under the watchful direction of Maria Aberg – a mammoth feat considering the behemoth that are the roles of Faustus and Mephistophilis. In whose hands have they left this decision – god, or the devil?
We’re presented with a stark scene. A stage scattered with office style boxes. A few books thrown around. Large wooden frames shrouded in opaque material. Two men in matching black suits enter, light a match and watch it burn. One becomes Faustus and is bound to remain on stage for the subsequent nearly 2 hours. The other returns as Mephistophilis a few scenes later, white from top to ankle – with his toes blackened by the darkness of hell. Stark. Simple. Striking.
In a play concerning dualism and decisions, this is just the first such instance where two elements are held up against each other so clearly. As the play progresses we see Mephistophilis move from puppeteer to gleeful voyeur as Faustus slowly topples into his devilish ways. Two facets of the same soul they could well be, just as Faustus’ friends appear as the comedic good and evil angel behind him.
Grierson’s Faustus is on the edge from the very beginning. Intently drawing a pentagram across the stage in chalk with his shirt (containing an eerily near perfect circle) he appears to possess the devil’s nervous energy and focused destruction from the outset. Ryan’s devil, on the other hand, plays it enticingly cool, drawing the audience in and seducing us with his lilting accent. Much has been made of Aberg’s decision to re-appropriate the famous Helen of Troy “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships” speech from a silent Faustus to Mephistophilis – and one questions whether by this point they are in fact distinct in her mind at all, or if they are indeed two halves coming back together as an immoral whole.
From a steampunk cabaret style incantation of the seven deadly sins that evokes the grotesque, to a chorus of scholars that cross ‘A Clockwork Orange’ with the three blind mice, there is no shortage of visual brilliance in this production. A predominantly monochrome aesthetic with accents of red coupled with compelling music, dance, songs, projection and even the real fires of hell, the performance is a multi-sensory overload. Intense high energy performances throughout with little overt comedic respite (given the text abbreviations) allowing for distinct moments of macabre humour to play out. A wry smile came across my face when Lucifer, the archangel of hell, was shown to be a woman in a purer than white outfit and a sensual demeanour. More Eve perhaps than evil but suggestive mirror image none the less.
For a sixteenth century audience, this play would have caused no end of discomfort. To view it first hand was to be confronted by the devil and hear your very lifeblood of religion publicly denounced. How does this resonate in the twenty first century when religious propagandism is far less prevalent? What philosophical morality can we substitute for religious belief in its purest form?
“It is a comfort to the wretched to have companions in misery” says Mephistophilis. And while Aberg’s audience aren’t the miserable discontent, they are companions of the doctor and the devil; drawn in and spat back out from the first flame to the very last drop of blood.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Doctor Faustus at the Barbican Theatre, Silk St, London EC2Y 8DS until 1st October 2016. Running time 1 hour 50 minutes with no interval. Production images by Helen Maybanks. For more information and tickets please visit the website.