by Christopher Marlowe
Directed by Maria Arberg
Designed by Naomi Dawson
Music by Orlando Gough
Royal Shakespeare Company
The Swan Theatre
Saturday 26th March 2016, 13.30
Whatever happened to those RMC (Royal Marlowe Company) T-shirts from The Jew of Malta last year? I always felt they should have put them on sale in the gift shop.
This one starts with its big idea, Co-stars Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan are dressed identically, and pick up a pack of Swan Vesta matches each. Lucifer was a slang word for match for years, and is still used in the Netherlands. They strike a match, and the one that burns longest, or perhaps shortest – it wasn’t explicit and even in the front row I couldn’t see which one burnt out first … plays Doctor Faustus, and the other plays Mephistophilis. The alternating roles idea was used in the National Theatre Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller sharing the roles of Dr Frankenstein and The Monster, but that was on a regular alternating basis. Here, in Doctor Faustus, it’s random. So you couldn’t book to see (say) Oliver Ryan as Doctor Faustus, because it is decided on the night. The role of Faustus in Maria Arberg’s production is enormously physically demanding. I’m cynical, and suspect there are ways of fixing the match strike on matinee days so as to do one each. Whatever. We saw a Sandy Grierson as Faustus, Oliver Ryan as Mephistophilis version, and both seemed so perfectly cast, that I can’t imagine it the other way round. Unfortunately I can’t book to see it the other way either because it’s decided on the night. Allegedly. What’s annoying is that press night, and most images of the group scenes, show Ryan as Doctor Faustus. Still, I found a few the other way.
I checked out online reviews in advance and was mildly worried by The Birmingham Mail’s comment that Grierson’s Scots accent and Ryan’s Irish were not comprehensible. Maybe it was true five weeks ago when It opened, but I can report that now both are perfectly clear (Ryan’s Irish is undetectable, Grierson’s Scottish is a light burr).
Dr Faustus (Sandy Grierson) centre with pentagram
There is much dance, physicality and great music from Orlando Gough’s score, played by a six person band. We saw Gough years ago with his six keyboard band, Man Jumping. They performed with a modern dance troupe at The Nuffield in Southampton and we bought the CD going out. He also scored The Bakkhai last year.
Coincidentally (or not), both Hamlet (at least in last night’s RSC version) and Doctor Faustus begin in Wittenberg. Wittenberg was where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in 1517, thus starting the Reformation. So the location, the home of Protestantism, was significant both for Hamlet and Doctor Faustus.
Our art teacher at school was much taken with Giotto … bear with me, I’m still on Faustus. The Pope asked Giotto for an example of his ability, and Giotto took a piece of paper and drew a perfect circle in one sweep of the hand. Once Faustus decides that magic will be his game, he draws a huge circle on the stage and a pentagram within. Well, Sandy Grierson’s whitewash circle was pretty close to Giotto levels. I have no idea of how he did it so well. Then Faustus lights fires in what look like cardboard boxes, and starts to chant and it echoes and swells hypnotically, until Mephistophilis appears through the slit in the bubble wrap framing the stage. Ryan is dressed in a white suit, bare chest and bare feet, though the feet are painted black. Ryan is a perfect insinuating, calm diabolical spirit.
Sandy Grierson (Doctor Faustus)Oliver Ryan (Mephistophilis)
All the writing the document to sell his soul in blood is done by obtaining blood with a Stanley knife (box cutter for American readers). Lucifer (Eleanor Wyld) is a seductive and beautiful blonde woman, dressed in white.
We have the good angel and evil angel high in the galleries on either side, and a large chorus of scholars. Reviews call them “punks” though I’m not sure why. They’re dressed in black, with white shirts and narrow ties, loosened at the neck (perhaps the ties make people think of Elvis Costello). They all have black hats. The coats vary in length – one or two are tailcoats others not. In spite of the ties the length of coats and the black hats are definitely reminiscent of Hassidic Jews with a touch of Charlie Chaplin.
The seven deadly sins scene is elaborately costumed and brilliant. One review loved the music and said the original songs were weak. I entirely disagree. I loved the Seven Sins song, and the chorus’s chanting was a major element throughout. There were some funny ideas in the portrayal too – pride (Theo Fraser Steele) strutting around in a skin tight Ziggy Stardust suit, wrath (Ruth Everett) as a little girl stamping her feet, gluttony (Gabrel Fleary) in a fat suit, Sloth (Richard Sleeimg) lolling all over the floor, Envy in black fress and mask (Bathsheba Piepe) and Lechery(Natey Jones) was a bearded transvestite, giving Faustus a full on slobbering snog.
This production wisely cut a lot of the slapstick in the middle, but then it cut a lot of verbiage in favour of music and physical action. The Pope (Timothy Speyer) got the pans thrown around, and no doubt comic popes went down a storm in Elizabethan England.
The invincible Faustus (Sandy Grierson) with Emperor’s men
The attempted but unsuccessful killing of Faustus by the Emperor was powerful, with the soldiers in green uniforms, with black net masks over their faces and huge red rubber gloves. Grierson was kicked, pummelled and thrown all over the stage – one throw had him sliding the depth of the stage to within a couple of feet of the front row (as ever music throbbed throughout). Faustus is immortal for the 24 years of his contract with the devil.
The climax of the play is Helen of Troy. This was one of the most powerful scenes we have seen in ANYTHING in the last few years. Magnificent acting and direction. First of all, Faustus’s lines, the most famous speech in the play, Is this the face that launched a thousand ships … is switched to Mephistophilis who delivers it seated on a box, and Oliver Ryan delivers it beautifully too. Faustus is silent. Helen of Troy is played by Jade Croot. She is poignantly young and slight, dressed in a thin white shift dress, bare feet and legs. She must be cast as a dancer … she has no lines. When she leaps up and scissors Faustus around the waist her feet touch perfectly, toe to toe, heel to heel in one movement. She flops like a broken doll, boneless. It’s a painful interaction … she is so young looking that it’s Jimmy Saville territory as Faustus tries ro paw at her. Then when she retreats, Grierson runs in frantic circles around the stage until he collapses in a heap. Not a word is spoken, but we have Ryan intoning.
Oliver Ryan (Mephistophilis) and Sandy Grierson (Doctor Faustus)
At the end, at the death of Faustus, Mephistophilis kisses his twin, his other self on the mouth. In retrospect, I realize that as Faustus had just had a long speech, the kiss was a practical way of passing a blood capsule into Grierson’s mouth, but it is still a striking moment.
The theology … I haven’t touched upon it. As the programme goes to pains to point out, it’s a problem for modern British audiences who don’t … hopefully … see the devil as real. 18% of Britons believe the devil is real. For America the figure is 57% (and rises to 65% among Republican voters). It means the play has a good chance on Broadway then.
We may have metaphors about selling your soul, derived from this story, but we see them as metaphors. Faustus does actually sell his soul, and for me the music, the spectacle, the chanting was the way to do it. The whole play ran at 1 hour 45 minutes, the same as just the first part of Hamlet the night before, but significantly this felt shorter by a long way … the time flew by.
Sandy Grierson’s Faustus will be one of the great performances this year, as will be Oliver Ryan’s Mephistophilis. I’m sure we’re not alone in saying we’d go again if only we could be sure of seeing them the other way around.
FIVE STARS * * * * *
A friend was visiting, so we did go to see it again, as Grierson’s is the best performance so far this year. I was on tenterhooks as the matches were struck, in the hope of seeing it the other way round, with Oliver Ryan as Faustus but no, it was Sandy Grierson again. As soon as he started, I was simply delighted to appreciate his towering performance again. I re-read the carping newspaper reviews. Either it has improved hugely since press night, or they’re wrong. As press night was the “other way round” maybe it just didn’t work as well that way.
The music came out even more – I had been so transfixed by the Helen scene first time, that I barely noticed the intoxicating melody during the scene. This time I realised just how good it is.
LINKS TO MARIA ABERG REVIEWS on this blog