BWW Interview: Director Maria Aberg on DOCTOR FAUSTUS

Maria Aberg in rehearsals for Doctor Faustus

Swedish director Maria Aberg came to the UK to study at Mountview aged 20. She's since become a bold force in British theatre, with work ranging from Hotel at the National Theatre and Wildefire at the Hampstead to numerous productions for the RSC. Her most recent, Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, features lead actors Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan sharing the roles of Faustus and Mephistophilis, deciding on the night who plays which by striking matches. The production transfers from Stratford to the Barbican in September as part of the RSC's London Season.

When did you first get the directing bug?

I studied theatre at the equivalent of A-levels in Sweden, thinking then that I wanted to be an actress, as I wasn't aware of any other options. Then I got the chance to direct a few tiny things, and thought "This is great - I'm really enjoying it." I really had an instinctive grasp of it. I'd always watched theatre partly for enjoyment, but also with a strong curiosity about how it's made and what it means. I'd never just watched as a regular punter.

How do British and European theatre differ in your experience?

I was young when I came over here, so my entire career has been UK-based. I have directed in Germany and Sweden, but I probably feel more like a British director. The main difference between the two is funding: Europe generally has better funding, and that filters down into longer rehearsal periods and more freedom to explore. But the RSC is in a great position to offer something similar, with ensembles rather than actors just coming together for individual projects. That affects their approach to work, and how we all work within a building.

I'd also say the director has a different status in Europe - we're more writer-driven here - but that's changed a lot in the UK over the past 10 years.

Oliver Ryan in Doctor Faustus

Does the contested text of Faustus mean less pressure to strictly adhere to it?

Plays that are part of the canon do have a weight of expectation - partly from the audience and partly from the industry and critics - to approach the text with a certain kind of respect, and there's an idea about the kind of production that will emerge if you do, say, The Crucible. But the multiple versions of Faustus and authorship debates means there's a kind of openness in how you view the way those scenes are strung together and what you can do with them.

Did you catch Jamie Lloyd's version?

I actually haven't seen any other Faustus productions before. I've really worked fresh from the text - I read it and thought a lot about the central theme of faith, and what happens when you don't have something to believe in. I focussed on that aspect and took out some of the comedy, which didn't speak to me as much. You want to present the elements you really engage with.

Did you know early on you wanted to have the actors swapping the roles of Faustus and Mephistophilis?

That was in the back of my mind to try it, and I cast two actors with a view to exploring it, but we didn't make the decision until we were into rehearsals. Even then it took a long time to decide whether we should choose who played what live on the night, or schedule it in advance like they did with Frankenstein at the National Theatre.

At the beginning everyone was slightly terrified, including the two actors, who bravely went into it knowing they'd have to learn not one but two parts in quite a text-heavy play.

How did you structure rehearsals?

They were both always in the room, because all the discoveries we made were going to be useful regardless of who came up with them. They worked very, very hard! Initially, we would rehearse scenes a couple of times one way round, then swap, but that became untenable, so we did half a day one way and then changed. That meant they could focus on one character for longer and start putting all those discoveries into practice.

Sandy Grierson in Doctor Faustus

What do you think it adds to the production?

It probably keeps it a little bit more exciting - it lives and changes more than it might otherwise over a long run. It also cements that duality. Mephistophilis is very much the darker side of Faustus - they're connected, as two sides of the same person, and our rehearsal process meant they really knew where each was coming from and what they're thinking. It's all about that close relationship and the internal journey conjured between them.

It gives the play as a whole a different resonance. Instead of focussing on the religious or social aspects of it, these psychological readings come through, so it highlights new things. Revivals really must open up plays.

Is it tricky to balance respect for verse with a production that engages diverse audiences?

I don't see it as two conflicting things. Verse, if it's done well, is incredibly brilliant at engaging an audience, but you shouldn't slack off on other elements, whether it's music, movement or design. Often the visual world supporting the story is of equal importance to the text.

Do you think about whether your take on a classic might be controversial?

When you're making a piece of theatre, you can't allow yourself to think in terms of it being modern or traditional or anything. Later, you can look back and say "I tried something new" or "I understand why someone's upset", but at the time you just have to focus on making the most interesting, complex piece of theatre you can - and one that you think will most affect the audience.

Are you changing much for the Barbican run?

We've got a few days of re-rehearsal to make some little changes. Putting the show in a new space gives you that chance to adjust it a bit.

Which other directors inspire you?

I'm spurred on by peers like Carrie Cracknell and Michael Longhurst, who emerged at the same time as me - I'm really inspired by being part of that generation of directors. I do also look to Europe a lot. Like everyone, I'm a fan of Ivo van Hove, and I loved the theatre in Germany when I was working there - it changed how I look at the relationship between text and visuals, and between a production and its audience.

Oliver Ryan and company in Doctor Faustus

Do you feel more secure at this stage of your career?

As a freelance director, I never feel safe. I do have a fantastic relationship with the RSC, but there's no such thing as job or financial security. We could do so much more to support female directors, though Tonic Theatre is doing fantastic work and the PIPA campaign for parents in the arts could make a big difference. As a new mum, I really appreciate how they're calling attention to what's a major barrier for a lot of people.

We're still terrible about diversity in terms of ethnicity and background - even the women coming through are mainly white, well-off and middle-class. We have to work hard to make sure that doesn't become the new norm.

What are your dream future projects?

I would love to do all the history plays. But there really isn't anything I'd say no to - new plays, adaptations. Whatever excites and challenges me.

What's the best advice you've been given?

When I was on the National Theatre directors' course in 2005, Dominic Cooke came in and said to us: "Worry about the art - not the career." A lot of the time you're focussed on where the next opportunity is coming from, who you should assist to get into a building, the path you're taking to a place where you're "a director".

Of course you do need to do all that, but you really need to think about why you're doing what you're doing, how you're doing it, doing it well, and developing your own voice. Really, the key to building a career as a director is working out what you want to say in the world, and then finding the most exciting way to say it.

Doctor Faustus is at the Barbican 7 September-1 October as part of the RSC's London Season

Picture credit: Helen Maybanks

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