Alex Barasch is a 19 year old Biology student and the current RSC Ambassador for Oxford University, who, as a lover of early modern drama (and theatre in general), takes full advantage of the RSC Key’s BP £5 tickets whenever possible.
Oliver Ryan and Sandy Grierson in Doctor Faustus. Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC
Maria Aberg’s production of Doctor Faustus is a compelling one from the outset. It opens with RSC veterans Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan walking on stage and striking a match: the lead whose match burns out first “loses” and is forced to take on the role of Faustus, the eponymous doctor who sells his soul to Lucifer for 24 years of supernatural power and impunity, while his counterpart plays the devil Mephistophilis. This mirroring continues throughout, as the two swap lines, share monologues and imitate each other’s physicality, emphasising the strength of their contract— and culminating in a delightfully intimate end.
Aberg’s decision to cut the comic scenes in the middle of the play resulted in a fast-paced, unrelenting performance. In particular, the treatment of Benvolio’s (Tom McCall) humiliation and attempted revenge was tonally excellent, and while Ryan’s manic Mephistophilis was sometimes brutal, Grierson shone as a palpably tormented Faustus whose breakdown is reflected by the ensemble around him. As everyone he encounters grows increasingly grotesque and inhuman in both appearance and behaviour—the faceless soldiers who attend on the Emperor communicate in ominous clicks, and the Duke of Vanholt could pass for Gluttony—he no longer knows whom to trust.
The visible purity and seeming normalcy of Helen’s childlike spirit comes almost as a relief to both the Doctor and the audience when he first summons her, until it becomes clear that here, too, something is off. In this, one of the most unsettling moments of the production, Faustus is forced to confront the hollowness of the “pleasures” that have cost him his soul. The clever doubling of scholars and devils makes subsequent scenes even more sinister, and we begin to understand Faustus’ paranoia: has the crowd come to entreat him to entertain with his magic or drag him to hell at last?
These bold choices in costuming and characterisation are complemented by Naomi Dawson’s simple yet evocative set (the pentagram Faustus draws when he first summons Mephistophilis remains as a striking reminder for the duration) and Orlando Gough’s stunning score, by turns discordant and sensual. All in all, a powerful and innovative interpretation not to be missed.
Doctor Faustus is now playing in the Swan Theatre until 4 August, 16-25 year olds can still get BP £5 tickets for this production – just enter promo code 1625 when booking.