I was incredibly excited to sit down to watch Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. I studied the text at A-Level and really fell in love with it, however, I’ve never been lucky enough to see it performed – and where better to see a production of it than in Stratford by the Royal Shakespeare Company?!
Before watching the play itself, we were allowed access to a talk with the Assistant Director and the actors playing the show’s two main roles: Faustus, the protagonist, and the demon Mephistopheles. The most fascinating thing about the production was the fact that the two actors, Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan, switched who played each role each night. The decision itself happened onstage; they would each enter, ready to play Faustus, strike a match whoever’s flame burned out first would begin the first scene, with the other actor leaving to prepare to play Mephistopheles. This made the start of the play incredibly exciting and was a great way to draw parallels between the two characters as well as symbolising the fleeting shortness of Faustus’s life.
For readers who don’t know Marlowe’s story, Dr Faustus is a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for twenty-four years of total omnipotence and knowledge. Lucifer provides him with a servant, Mephistopheles, to do his bidding however, after the twenty-four years is up Faustus must repay the devil by consigning himself to an eternity in hell. It’s a brilliant story of greed, power and sorcery, which I truly believe has stood the test of time; four hundred years later it is still being performed!
However, I must confess I was very disappointed with the production. It started off very promisingly but soon descended into a one-act play that I found I didn’t really care about at all. Faustus (played on our night by Oliver Ryan), despite the story spanning twenty-four years of his life and a huge rage of emotions and character changes, stayed virtually the same throughout the piece, which was a bit of a frustration.
On top of this, the entire aesthetic was very confusing. In our talk beforehand, the assistant director discussed how he had planned to incorporate the burning of Bibles into his production but on reflection, decided this would be needlessly provocative and offensive. I was therefore shocked by some of the other production elements that I regarded to be totally distasteful. The chorus, who played the minions of Satan and appeared throughout, were all dressed as orthodox Jews while the personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins were portrayed as overtly camp drag queens. The latter sequence was completely bizarre, involving a pretty poorly written song with the lyrics ‘Seven Deadly Sins… Everybody wins’, whilst the characters strutted around in a lewd, pantomimic way as if at a beauty pageant. I am mystified at why burning a copy of the Bible was deemed ‘inappropriate’ to include onstage in a story about a man who renounces God and all spirituality, conjures the devil and then spends the rest of the play frolicking with Lucifer and his minions…but yet antagonising other minorities seemed entirely fair game, despite the fact that they were irrelevant in Marlowe’s text. The directorial decision to include themes of homophobia, anti-Semitism and stereotyping is beyond me.
Despite this, there were some effective moments throughout. The text had been radically cut and stripped back to its most basic form but some of the additional elements I felt worked well. The infamous scene between Helen of Troy and Faustus was, in particular, very beautiful. Helen (Jade Croot), ‘the face that launched one thousand ships’, was played by a girl of about fourteen, nymph-like and pure in her white nightdress, and performed a lyrical dance with Faustus to slow and haunting music. This was an interesting and poignant moment, highlighting the vulnerability and youth of Helen in an effective and alternative way.
There were parts of Dr Faustus to enjoy, however, overall I was hardly blown away by the production when I really expected I would have been. The role switching I felt was ingenious and added an element of excitement for the audience – it’s just a pity that the company didn’t sustain this throughout. For my first trip to the Royal Shakespeare Company I felt a little let down; I’ll just have to go back again so they can prove me wrong!