Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
Performed at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon and directed by Maria Aberg
I discovered when I went to see Dr Faustus at the Royal Shakespeare Company that actually there is no such thing as a definitive version of the play. There are two versions, from 1604 and 1616 which both date after Marlowe's death in 1593. It is open therefore for the director to interpret which version of the text is to be tackled.
I have seen Dr Faustus two times before. Once at the Old Vic in the mid 70's and again in 2010 at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. This production at the Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon felt quite different to both those versions. Faustus, an academic who feels he has outgrown his existing knowledge, explores the occult and strikes a pact with the Devil, exchanging his soul for 24 years of complete power on Earth. When I have seen it before, I always felt that even though Faustus had done the deal with the Devil, he did enjoy and exult in the life he proceeded to live on earth. He seemed to revel in the opulence and in the power that he had at his disposal. The RSC production was markedly different. There was no such feeling of joy in excess. Faustus seemed to live out his days becoming more and more cynical and cruel. There was no feeling of revelling in his experiences. From when Mephistophilis warns him:
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self-place; for where we are is hell,
And where hell is, there must we ever be.
Faustus seems to be experiencing hell as soon as the pact is done, rather than it being a fate for sometime in the future.
In order to highlight the similarities between Faustus and Mephistophilis as two sides of the same coin, the two actors have taken it in turns to act the parts on different nights. This gives the play an electrifying start as they both enter at the beginning, dressed as Faustus in identical costumes. Silently, they kneel facing each other and strike a match. Whosever match is extinguished first, is to play out the part of the Doctor. The other leaves the stage to take on the part of Mephistophilis. When I saw the play, Sandy Grierson was Dr Faustus and Oliver Ryan was Mephistophilis.
This is a play which always lends itself to great visual effects, with several famous set pieces. In this production, the whole staging was initially stark and dark. The back of the stage was shrouded in opaque sheets of polythene which were slit open to allow Mephistophilis and other visitors from hell to appear. The Seven Deadly Sins were paraded as an over the top cabaret of grotesques which no one would be tempted by. The palette was monochrome apart from the worldly scholars. Faustus, Mephistophilis and the Devil were all in white. Faustus' famous speech to Helen of Troy ('Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?') was given to Mephistophilis to speak whilst Faustus manipulated a waif like pre- adolescent girl. This made for slightly uncomfortable viewing through its implicit violence which gave an insight into Faustus' mind.
The Elizabethan audience tended to believe fervently in ideas of hell and the Devil. Ideas of making pacts with the Devil were well established and many would have accepted the ability of Faustus to conjure up evil and sign away his soul in his own blood. Faustus called forth Mephistophilis through his books, discarding many before revealing a large pentagram on the floor to which he added symbols and shapes. You felt the mounting anticipation as to what was going to be summoned forth. When the Devil appeared, she affected a detached and uninterested air. Only Mephistophilis seemed to betray his disquiet at what Faustus was actually agreeing to. He knew too well the horror of everlasting hell.
In short: a diabolical journey into Faustus' mind and the abuse of power.