The RSC's spine-tingling take on the Faust story
If you were going to put money sight unseen on which of this year's two major revivals of Kit Marlowe's diabolical tragedy 'Doctor Faustus' was going to be the best, you'd have been brave to put your cash on this one.
Not to diss the storied RSC - whose show this is - but on paper its 'Faustus' is simply less of an 'event' than Jamie Lloyd's all-guns-blazing West End production from May, which marked the long-awaited return of screen star Kit Harrington to the stage.
But frankly Maria Aberg's RSC production stomps all over Lloyd's disjointed spectacle.
The show gets everything right from the start, when actors Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan stride out wordlessly and pick up a pack of matches each. There is a spine-tingling moment when they strike the matches and the Barbican Theatre doors all do that eerie silent closing thing. The actor whose match burns out first - when I saw it, Ryan - takes the role of the scholar Faustus, who flogs his soul to the devil Mephistopheles (played by the actor whose match lasts longer, ie Grierson when I saw).
The main thrust of director Aberg's heavily edited 100-minute version is to stage 'Faustus' as a sort of surreal cabaret, as the serious, troubled, somewhat lonely Faustus is indoctrinated into a permissive new world by Mephistopheles. It's relatively lo-fi by RSC standards, but also visually ravishing thanks to Naomi Dawson's costumes and make up, Faustus drifting through a waking nightmare of white-faced Weimarian grotesques, set to Orlando Gough's haunting, jazzy original score.
What does it all mean? In a way this 'Faust' feels more like feast for the senses than a statement on fame, power, etcetera. There is the suggestion that little is real beyond Faust and his fatherly servant Wagner and that Mephistopheles is simply a facet of his personality (clearly born out by the doubling device).
But I think Aberg's production isn't to be over interpreted: it is sensual and emotional, a beautiful and horrible dream of escape and damnation.