It’s all good fun till someone loses a soul. If you’re feeling glib, I suppose this is the message of Faustus, but Marlowe wasn’t such a simple fellow; there are many ways to interpret this wickedly entertaining yet morally challenging play. In Stratford, the RSC has brought to life a sensory feast that draws together magic, music, spirituality and madness in a hectic yet robust retelling of Faustus’ “diabolical temptation.”
Intricately and determinedly researched, one of the play’s immediate successes is how it changes one’s perception of the supernatural from 21st to 16th century. Instead of seeing sorcery and spirits as theatrical fantasy, they become a recognisable part of (wicked) life. Orlando Gough’s musical compositions play their part in this; electric rhythms (apparently based on an MRI machine) help foster a modern-day perspective on the actions of Faustus, as does the interweaving of video images and the uniforms of attendant demons/scholars (something of out A Clockwork Orange), and the Emperor’s guards (something out of Nuremburg).
Under Maria Aberg’s directorship, the audience is encouraged throughout to consider the similarities between Faustus and his demonic companion. To this end, it’s a shame that the internet didn’t exist in Marlowe’s time. Our Wittenberg academic could have done with a dating website or two.
Name: John Faustus
Looking for: A tame demon, to do my bidding at all times (inc. weekends and holidays). Must have own magical abilities. Looking long term (24 years to be precise). Can offer a wide selection of academic texts, attractive urban lodgings, and own soul. Smokers no problem.
Looking for: Souls.
A match made in heaven. Or hell. Indeed, Faustus and Mephistophilis chant together, dance together, pull pranks together. Stab the pope together. An intriguing dynamic of the play is that Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan share the leading roles. Challenging enough, you might think, but the decision as to who plays Faustus at each performance is actually made live on stage. Both actors, identically dressed, enter and light a match. Whoever’s goes out first plays the good doctor. Perhaps there is something to be said about the fact that the ‘burnout’ plays Faustus – a man who is doomed to flare briefly with his otherworldly knowledge, yet have his soul extinguished by a satanic pact, whilst Mephistophilis burns on, a constant temptation, presence and threat. Either this, or they thought ‘rock paper scissors’ would look a little out of place.
For me, Oliver Ryan was Faustus – and he was excellent in portraying a man driven to devious ends in order to break free from the heavenly limitations on human knowledge. With mind (and occasionally mouth) working at a million miles an hour, he justifies his extreme actions whilst constantly battling the doubts that probably would start to creep in when you sign your soul over to the Devil in your own blood. It’s a physically punishing role; Ryan must perform some 500 year-old magic, be bandied about by demons, undergo an assault by sin, and suffer a nervous breakdown on stage. This comes in the form of his encounter with Helen of Troy. No kiss for Faustus though, to at least nurture his damned soul. Whilst Mephistophilis watches dispassionately on and recites Faustus’ own thoughts, Jade Croot as Helen, just a slip of a girl, personifies the innocence that has fled from him. Ryan carried it all off with apparent ease.
Sandy Grierson, then, was Mephistophilis. A sardonic Scottish demon, dressed in white suit but with blackened feet, his seduction of Faustus’ soul was a privilege to watch. Like Faustus, he too is trapped; having seen heaven, yet now a permanent resident of hell. With anger never too deeply hidden, his gulling of Faustus made sure the audience were in the palm of his hand. A dangerous place to be with a demon.
Each member of the tireless cast put on a splendidly energetic show, but without question the most entertaining section of Faustus’ journey to damnation is his introduction to the seven deadly sins. Paraded before Faustus by Lucifer herself in the form of a charismatic Eleanor Wyld, each and every sin was an exhibition. From an arachnid-looking Covetousness to a quite wonderfully barmy Wrath, this must have been great fun to rehearse. My pick, though, was Natey Jones’ twerkingly sequined Lechery – and there’s a sentence I thought I might never get to write.
Homo, fuge! Straight to Stratford and watch this play.
Doctor Faustus is on until 4th August in Stratford-upon-Avon. Click here for tickets.