BWW Review: DOCTOR FAUSTUS, Barbican Theatre, 13 September 2016
Two men stand on a stage strewn with boxes and each lights a match. When they go out, one will be Faustus and one will be Mephistophilis, and each will circle the other for the next two hours or so - one in charge, but powerless; the other at his beck and call, but powerful. There's a bit of both men in all of us.
Christopher Marlowe's play about the the man who sells his soul to Lucifer in return for 24 years of superego-free hedonism has been adapted so many times that a return to the original is most welcome - and it feels as fresh now as when it created such controversy over 400 years ago. This RSC version, presented all-through, is packed with visual delights and supplemented by Orlando Gough's atmospheric music, hell becoming an occasionally seductive, occasionally terrifying, place from which salvation can be sought, but only if we have the humility to accept it.
Sandy Grierson was "my" Faustus, railing against Law, Medicine and other professions for their failings in bitter Scottish tones, before deciding upon Magic as his subject and, after an almost sensuous creation of a circle and pentangle, summoning The Devil. Instead, he gets Mephistophilis (Oliver Ryan, louche with a touch of menace that could be turned up like a bunsen burner's flame) and enjoys asking Lucifer's man to perform a few party tricks before his freedom to choose to do anything, without any consequences accruing, begins to go sour.
Cue a chorus of scholars (who reminded me of so many Laurel and Hardys) and the Seven Deadly Sins, caricatured, grotesque and as relevant today as ever. Meanwhile, Eleanor Wyld's Lucifer, outfitted in a deceitful white, looks on knowing that Faustus's hubris will deliver his soul - 24 years is all she will have to wait.
There are interludes with the Pope and with the Good and Bad Angels, which seldom go well, and a tender moment with Helen of Troy (a sprite-like Jade Croot) before Faustus, now fearful of what awaits him, meets with his final reckoning.
There's a bit of blood (with what else would you sign away your soul, after all?), which caused a few shivers around me, and the aesthetic is somewhere between Goya and Tim Burton, but director Maria Aberg's vision of hell is not a chamber of horrors filled with fire and brimstone. Instead, it's somewhere in our minds, the result of our own choices when temptation hoves into view.
And I'll er... raise my glass to that.