The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus

Christopher Marlowe

Royal Shakespeare Company

Barbican Theatre

From 07 September 2016 to 01 October 2016

Review by Philip Fisher

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The opening to this bleached modern version of Marlowe's diabolical tragedy will define the experience of the ensuing 1¾ hours.

Actors Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan light matches and the holder of whichever extinguishes more quickly takes the title role, the other playing Mephistophilis.

Either that or Grierson always plays the Doctor, which is an uncharitable critical doubt but not an inconceivable alternative interpretation.

In any event, having drawn the short match, Grierson proceeded to demonstrate his well-known talents and versatility, most recently seen in very different mode during Anything That Gives off Light during the recent Edinburgh International Festival.

Here, he delivers a well-judged performance, balancing the character's intellectual world-weariness, his greedy desire for thrills and some inevitable regrets before the evening comes that inevitable denouement.

As a glamorous female Lucifer's sidekick, Ryan gets to twinkle mischievously and threaten occasionally but the role is less exciting and challenging, although he does deliver the speech of the evening, poetically extolling Helen of Greece's "face that launched a thousand ships".

The underlying tale has become the stuff of folk mythology, familiar even to those who never knew that Marlowe, Goethe, Gounod etc. existed. It has become even more an element of popular culture this year following Kit Harington's appearance in the role in a popular and populist version so far from the original to be nigh on unrecognisable.

Director Maria Aberg's vision for the RSC at least uses the original language and plotting, with the directorial input largely given over to a dark staging that relies on black and white imagery for the most part.

The influences seem largely German, with Brecht and Weil and the Weimar artists evoked, although the film version of A Clockwork Orange may have been in her mind and that of designer Naomi Dawson as well.

In the early scenes, John Faustus storms around a room seemingly awaiting a house move, restlessly trying to determine a future career that might lie in the law, divinity or alchemy.

Having discovered a book on the latter, he attempts to invoke the best that the dark arts can offer, unexpectedly succeeding in trumps by bringing Mephistophilis to his door, soon to be joined by Eleanor Wyld playing Lucifer.

In return for 24 years of self-indulgence, our hero bequeaths his soul to a hellish eternity.

The fun element becomes a dark cabaret on this occasion, the seven deadly sins mildly erotic but not especially stirring, while a very young Helen provides an even more forbidden taboo to overcome.

However, in many ways, the heart of this play lies in the central figure's realisation that time has run out and the need to face the consequences of his pact with the Devil.

It will be desirable to see this production twice in order to evaluate both Grierson and Ryan in their alternate roles. However, there is at least a possibility that even by attending every performance during this run, an unlucky viewer might merely catch the same combination every single time.

On this showing, Grierson as Faustus is by far the strongest suit that is on offer, with the spectacle not providing the support that he and the play deserve.