Wednesday, 14 September 2016
Review Dr Faustus
by Christopher Marlowe
What kind of academic would Dr Faustus be in the modern age? OK, don't tell us, he's just a fictional character, a chap from a German sixteenth century chapbook who sold his soul. We know that!
But watching the RSC's version of Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus directed by Maria Aberg, we were put in mind of those academics, wittingly or unwittingly, on the side of the bad angels when they promoted their particular brand of financial models before credit came to the crunch in 2008.
The large black box stage is strewn with boxes of the sort Lehman Brothers' employees used to pack up their belongings when exiting the building and turning off the lights in that fateful year.
In slick black suits two men have a face off, mirror images of each other with burning matches held between two fingers of their hand. The one who has the chance, which some might construe as skill, to hold the match which extinguishes first is Dr Faustus, the other taking on the role of the Lucifer's emissary Mephistophilis.
On Barbican press night, Sandy Grierson drew the short flame as Dr Faustus, Oliver Ryan as white suited, bare-chested footpad Mephistophilis and the road to soul crunch began. As if in some kind of unemployed post Lehman's limbo, Faustus sat in his study cum studio attended by gray bearded donnish Wagner (Nicholas Lumley), of a previoius generation, less slick in his knitted tank top.
Meanwhile magician mates Valdes ( Will Bliss) and Corneilus (John Cummins) egg on their friend to achieve the heights. The "bills"of Faustus, TLT and her automotive non-algorithmic engine ruminated, took on the guise of future trades. And the means of reaching his aspirations became more and more outlandish, fuelled by swigs of Vodka and who knows what other substances.
He strips off his city slicker accoutrements down to vest and pants, becoming part bovver boy skinhead, part punk. When he uses his shirt to dip in white paint and in a frenzy of creation draws a mystic pentangle in a circle, spattered with paint, he's almost like some Faustian Jackson Pollock on the road to creation and damnation.
It's certainly a stripped down one-act Faustus, the comic subplots discarded. So it may be 24 years of magical excess, absolute power, sating the thirst for knowledge, a contract signed with his blood. Or it could be a self-harming down-and-out hallucinating during one violent, abusive night.
Huge projections emerge on the backcloth, vertical neon lights hang down like stalactities and discordant chords of a band like some tune of the spheres gone wrong make this an decidedly untraditional Faustus designed by Naomie Dawson with Orlando Gough composing the music.
Lucifer (Eleanor Wyld) is a blonde nightclub host in a white trouser suit and heels with her parade of freaks, the seven deadly sins: High-kicking cat-suited Pride (Theo Fraser-Steele), a Tim Burton-type Covetousness (Rosa Robson) on stilts and outsize tree branch crutches; Black and white middle-aged girl Wrath (Ruth Everett) wields rapiers like Edward Scissorhands; Envy (Bathsheba Piepe) has a black executioner's hood and sexy body corset and swirling skirt ; Gluttony (Gabriel Fleary) has an obscene body with huge overhanging stomach and a hog's head while Sloth (Richard Leeming) slithers on the ground and Lechery (Natey Jones) is a bearded ladyman in white sparkly drag.
Black coated and homburg suited faceless demons and students rise up and surround Faust likr shades of Michael Jackson zombies. Meanwhile, friars seem to come out of a Star Wars film set. Drum beats ratchet up the tension. It's a world skewed where everything is out of season like the disembodied grapes which drop from the ceiling as a gift for the lascivious Duchess of Vanhott (Amy Rockson). But it's strangely resonant in our out-of-season supermarket age.
This is certainly a Faustus to conjure with, imprinting numerous outlandish, weird images on the audience's mind, a Faustus that loses the plot.
There's a Trainspotting kind of energy and a doubleness, as we've noted, that could be the conjurer and university doctor Faustus or equally a drug-den hallucination with real-life consequences when Helen of Troy (Jade Croot) is transformed into a vulnerable child.
It certainly made a visual impression on us, even if the tale of Faustus's understandable mission to gain knowledge, albeit at the expense of his soul, felt somewhat lost. Your own devilish duo gives this secular Faust a neon amber light.