Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
Directed by Maria Aberg
Designed by Naomi Dawson
Valdes, Good Angel
Cornelius, Evil Angel
Helen of Troy
THEO FRASER STEELE
Continues in repertory at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
*** (out of five)
Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus asks an ultimate question: what would you sell your soul for? Dr. Faustus, a scholar in search of knowledge and power, knows the exact price for his soul: He bargains with Mephistopheles, Lucifer’s representative, that he will give his soul to the devil in exchange for 24 years of pleasure and power. Faustus takes a knife to his arm and signs the contract in blood.
Sandy Grierson as Mephistophilis in Doctor Faustus. Photograph: Helen Maybanks
Director Maria Aberg takes her personal knife to the play in her production for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. She slashes scenes and lines to bring the whole thing down to one hour and forty five minutes with no intermission.
At the start of the performance, two identically dressed actors walk on the stage of the Swan Theatre, face each other and light matches. When the matches burn out, one of them will play Faustus and the other one will play Mephistophilis. I could not see the match in the hand of one of the actors and therefore I am not sure how they decide who will play what part. If your match burns first, you get to play what?
The interest here is not the method of choosing but Aberg’s take on the two characters and the fact of having two actors who can perform either of the two roles that in the end may be the obverse of the other. The day I saw it Faustus was played by Sandy Grierson and Mephistophilis by Oliver Ryan.
The production is done in modern dress with the bare minimum of props. Faustus’s study is full of banker’s boxes which contain a great deal of learning and wisdom. He tosses all to the ground with contempt. He picks up a hefty Bible and heaves it to the ground, He has a Good Angel and an Evil Angel tugging at him (surely different sides of the same person) but he indulges himself for 24 years until it is time to pay up.
He meets Lucifer (Eleanor Wyld), the big boss one would say, an attractive, blonde woman dressed in angelic white. He meets an Emperor, a Pope, a Duchess and other people. Aberg has most fun with Faustus’s encounter with the Dazedly Sins, who come out as if in a cabaret performance. We also have a company of scholars. Near the end Faustus meets and dances with the scantily dressed Helen of Troy.
Aberg has inserted a good dose (too much for my taste) of music by Orlando Gough and considerable movements to give the production a modern feel.
There is some fine acting, especially by the principals, and considerable energy but the core or the soul of the play, if you will, was lost on me. Is it possible for us to accept the premise of Doctor Faustus in modern dress with the setting and theatrical paraphernalia of a modern production? Would it not be more convincing to travel to a time when belief in Lucifer and the battle for our souls was a matter of conviction?
Perhaps. In any event this production failed to say all that I wanted and expected from Marlowe’s great play.