FringeReview UK 2016
Alternating the main roles of Faustus and Mephistopheles with Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan, Maria Aberg’s RSC production of Doctor Faustus transfers from Stratford‘s Swan to the more traditional prosc-arch space of the Barbican relatively smoothly. Designer Naomi Dawson’s set is a versatile deconstruction of strewn packing boxes allowing for spectacle, where Ayse Tashkiran’s movement and Ed Parry’s costumes make entrances often by ensembles slashing through opaque windows, allowing vistas of damnation or redemption a kind of twilight. Orlando Gough’s score, superbly various and viscous, triumphs where it’s most needed, in the central sections.
Maria Aberg’s RSC production of Doctor Faustus transfers from Stratford‘s Swan to the more traditional prosc-arch space of the Barbican relatively smoothly. It’s the RSC’s dark twin to Jonson’s The Alchemist and this programme doubling’s inspired. Designer Naomi Dawson’s set is a versatile deconstruction of strewn packing boxes allowing for spectacle, where Ayse Tashkiran’s movement and Ed Parry’s costumes make entrances often by ensembles slashing through opaque windows, allowing vistas of damnation or redemption a kind of twilight. Orlando Gough’s score, superbly various and viscous, triumphs where it’s most needed, in the central sections.
Two major Doctor Faustus productions this year, with Jamie Lloyd’s Colin Teevan re-write: two contemporary takes and the RSC delights in dopplegangers too: alternating the main roles of Faustus and Mephistopheles with Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan. At the outset, each square up mirrored and strike matches to see who’ll play the part. Tonight’s is the version most commented on: Grierson’s commanding Mephistopheles does more than ringingly square off against Ryan’s smoky-voiced humanity.
With so unstable a text – Marlowe enjoyed contemporary and posthumous collaborators – Faustus almost invites radical intervention, with its infamous beginning, muddle and end. Unlike the Lloyd though, the RSC gives us an edited version of the original, and without glaring at the twenty-first century.
Indeed taking damnation and doubleness as a psychological trope means we’re treated to messy phantasmagoria, rather than geeky-clean spectacle. Internalising the conflict takes some sting out of hellfire, but Grierson and Ryan are potent enough and – supremely – different enough for the doppleganger trope to fade, and the play win out over its doubters, whatever Aberg’s declared theme.
Ryan’s edgy restless Faustus chucks up books from a hastily-unpacked life and at the end he’s delivering his great final speech on speed, all Latin tags neatly translated. There’s perhaps not enough time to allow Faustus’s undivine restlessness to sink in, but Ryan does telegraph a soul and etch its loss, where various characters – Ncholas Lumley’s deeply humane Wagner, necromancers and good/evil angels Will Bliss and John Cummins (also rich-voiced) – start populating what becomes a cabaret.
Grierson’s entrance is beautifully spare, white suited, clinically precise demanding incisions for blood, jaggedly humoured, with the glint of a broken bottle shifted round so you don’t see it. Ryan’s speech both nervy and on occasion purposefully smoky to the point of opacity, evokes a man on the edge with that clinical observer part (I’m assuming), Grierson, amusedly pouring a leprous distilment. Whenever Ryan turns again to God, Grierson’s there to flash his teeth, with helpers including Eleanor Wyld’s slinky Lucifer. You’d think him Mac the Knife becoming a therapist.
It’s the 1930s most evoked, with the parade of the Seven Deadly Sins, a breath-taking spectacle. Orlando Gough’s sultry score foregrounds here – taking cues from Weill/Brecht of course, and Cabaret, but also Alfred Schnittke’s Faust Cantata, and even a burst of what sounds like the recent St Trinian’s movie torch-song. With a cast of hatted men from Cabaret’s Berlin, like Madness groupies or perhaps A Clockwork Orange, the astonishing Sinners strut through their midst; grotesquerie rarely matches this. Rosa Robson’s stilted spider-ish Covetousness wins for seer inventiveness, Gabriel Fleary’s Gluttony nearly matches and indeed nearly all of them like Natey Jones’ Lechery adorn their monstrous parade.
The undergraduate pranks and demonstrations with twists of revenge – based on King Rudolf’s obsessions with alchemy – pass by, leaving a disconsolate Faustus running out of time, and re-invoking Helen (Jade Croot) whose hesitating desires and freakish, sexually violent dance with Faustus compresses a whole marriage in a whiff of sulphur. Grierson’s Mephistopheles also speaks Ryan’s lines for him when he’s energetically dancing with Helen, a doppleganger recall moment that manages something else. Faustus ends dancing with nothing, and we’re left to the final scenes.
At the expense of comparison, there’s another a way to tackle this text, richly deploying both 1604 and 1616 versions – with professional acccretions and deletions. Tanglehead Productions doubled too, with a young and old Faust, perambulating an audience round ferocious cries and acrobatics from upper to lower red-lit rooms – an outstanding Brighton Fringe event of 2012.
Aberg has though allowed the drama space to believe in itself, with Ryan’s remarkably well-drawn magic circle. This Faustus could have done without hurling boxes and other exhausting hold-ups rained upon him, but it’s a darkness to believe in.