Doctor Faustus, RSC: the dual challenge

Doctor Faustus. Photo Credit: Barbican

There are two large empty frames on the opposite sides of the stage. The actors silently position themselves within and slowly approach the centre. I can hear the audience immediately becomes quiet.

The match challenge, deciding every evening who is going to play who, is one of the element of greater curiosity in this production of Doctor Faustus by the Royal ShakespeareCompany, come to town at the Barbican Centre this September.

The actors face each other while waiting for their matches to burn completely. (At the performance I went to) Oliver Ryan’s is the first. Sandy Grierson waits until also his is completely gone. Then, as slowly as he entered, Grierson goes out through one of the side frame.

The feeble light of the matches has just started the dual correlation between the main characters of this theatre piece. Faustus finds in Mephistophilis a guide, a companion, a support, similar and yet so different. Movements, costumes, and, most of all, the brilliant interchange of Ryan and Grierson, remind the viewers how close are the two, one mirroring and completing the other.

The original play dates back to the XVI century, when The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus was first performed. German stories about Faust were the basis for this Elizabethan tragedy by Christopher Marlowe.

Doctor Faustus cannot find comfort in any subjects. He has studied from the beginning to the end all that is knowable and still has not found a single discipline that can fully answer his questions.
Everyone is a sinner and we are all condemned to die: that’s the only revelation he gets from the Scriptures.

Fascinated by the possibilities that now only the Dark Arts promise, Faustus draws signs, lights candles, and recites formulas. The demon Mephistophilis appears and agrees to the Doctor’s request: he will become Faustus’ servant, ready to satisfy all his desires, if Faustus’ soul will become Lucifer’s.

Hybris, greed, and human stubbornness: the RSC performs the dramatic events of a life spent in search of the ultimate knowledge. But the desire to become perfect, omniscient, to be other than our nature, has never led to good ends, as Icarus, Dorian Gray, or Dante’s Ulysses also teach us.

Since Faustus signs the contract with his own blood, the devil serves the doctor in a series of offences, from murder, to indulges in the capital sins.

Director Maria Aberg brings to the scene a Faustus that leaves the least pause. The rhythm increases as the protagonist stains himself, less and less conscious of the many appeals to redemption and with neither the answers or fulfillment he was looking for at the beginning.

It's not that Doctor Faustus commits bad acts with no remorse. Different people recall Faustus to seek mercy and forgiveness from God, but the protagonist perseveres in his rotten path. Though, doubts arouse now and then, and the symbolic angel and devil quarrel over the shoulder is a scene we see more than once. But then any hesitation is wiped away by Mephistophilis.

The devil’s representative wears a spotless white suit, no shirt, no tie, to complete the jacketless clothing of Faustus. Also Lucifer – a seductive Eleanor Wyld - wears white, with black steels. Grotesque, coloured in different tones of grey, are instead the seven sins’ costumes.

There are a lot of shadows, and the light plays around to make devious locations.

In the final scene, the floor is covered with pages, boxes, red confetti, dusts, wax, and what else more, like a mirror of the striped and torn soul resting hopeless on the stage.

This dynamic performance, featuring 5/5 stars actors, draws the audience in a journey into a man’s dissolute desires with a perfect modern twist.

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Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe
Royal Shakespeare Company
the Barbican: 7 September - 1 October 2016