It’s an odd and troubling thing, a mid-life crisis. Time crashes into you with the force of a juggernaut; reeling from its impact, you look back and everything you’ve done seems paltry and inadequate, while ahead lies an inexorable and accelerating slide towards death. The impulse is to shed a layer of skin, as though sloughing off your surface might change you at your core; or to achieve change another way, by accumulation, some acquisition that might shift your position in the world. It’s all pointless. Life is brief and meaningless and then you die and – unless you’re exceptional – nothing you did or had or knew or achieved will last after you’ve gone.
Although it’s a modern concept – the term mid-life crisis was coined in 1965 by Canadian psychologist Elliott Jaques – fear of mortality is at least as old as history, and so are counter-charms, myth-shaped palliatives and elaborate visions of an afterlife. Such is the promise of religion: that there is something beyond merely this, something over there that is always worth striving for even if nothing here is.
By the standards of average Elizabethan life expectancy – roughly 42 – Christopher Marlowe was in the middle of his life when he wrote The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. He shaped as his central character a scholar already master of philosophy, medicine, law and divinity, enough learning for a multiplicity of lifetimes, and yet consumed with disenchantment: “Art thou still but Faustus and a man?” It infuriates him that “we must die an everlasting death”. He wants more. He wants power: over others, over his own limitations, over life, over death. Don’t we all, sweetheart. Don’t we all.
The funny thing about Faustus is that he’s so unimaginative. What’s the first thing he asks Mephistophilis for? A wife. A request the demon rightly scorns. Marlowe was 24 when the play was first performed, and that’s exactly the number of years Faustus desires of unlimited power: a laughably paltry figure now, but half a lifetime then. Maria Aberg’s gimlet version sheds all the clown business and rivets instead on the pair’s diabolical rampages: years of carousing, swaggering, murdering. Intermittently Faustus pauses to wonder whether he really wants to condemn his soul to hell, but given his emphatic resistance to the idea of damnation, what actually seems to be giving him pause is whether any of his efforts are worth it. Once the buzz of brutality has gone, nothing is left but the flat hum of banality.
This is the problem of Aberg’s production: she has done so much to make Faustus zing in a modern era, cut and created cabaret sequences and commissioned a scintillating score from Orlando Gough that sometimes struts like it thinks it’s the soundtrack to a funksploitation movie and sometimes just rattles like teeth in a glass unnervingly animate. But none of it looks much fun. Partly this is a matter of personal taste, meshed with a political resistance to Aberg’s aesthetic: there’s an awful lot of fat suits in her cabaret sequences, an equation of chub with grotesque that feels thoughtless and wrong. And partly it’s the tedium of male fantasy, its paucity and predictability. What’s the final thing Faustus asks for in the hours before his time runs out? To possess Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman who ever lived. I mean, please. Give me a break.
Of course, to receive Faustus this way is a kind of perversity that clearly marks me out as atheist or at least agnostic (I’d be interested to read, for instance, the Muslim response to this production, if only our reviewing culture were different). But key to Aberg’s interpretation is the lack of distinction between good and evil, god and devil. Faustus and Mephistophilis are indistinguishable from each other; more than that, Faustus’ power is only ever Mephistophilis’ power, and he deceives himself if he thinks otherwise. The sequence with Helen, although infuriating, is also exquisite and electrically charged, because it’s the moment when the currents of power run haywire. Faustus dances with a slip of a girl while Mephistophilis watches, incanting the words that run through Faustus’ brain. If she cedes to him, it’s only to pull away, to slap him, ultimately to evade his grasp. Claw as he might at his head and body, Faustus will never be able to pluck out his self-disgust.
Marlowe, meanwhile, was a pioneer of the live fast die young trope: he was stabbed to death before he turned 30. He was one of the exceptional ones. Whether or not he deserves that immortality is another matter.
Doctor Faustus is on at the Barbican until 1st October 2016. Click here for more details.