Reviewer: Sanah El-Gadi
I really did not know what to expect. I loved reading and studying the play, but to be an audience member in a production by The Royal Shakespeare Company after hearing the historic tales of audience reaction during the time of publication, I was slightly apprehensive, yet hugely intrigued.
I have seen many, many productions, but none quite like this one.
After the delightful minibus journey observing Mr Sandell’s driving capabilities and having a missing-ticket drama, we arrived in the lovely city of Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Before watching the play, we were able to attend the director’s talk with Maria Aberg. It seemed to me that Maria cared deeply about the aesthetic of the performance, and this was later very much apparent when watching the show. She appeared to have a rather modernist perspective of the play whilst still encompassing the earlier representations, which I found intrigued me even further.
Then came the time where questions were open to the audience so, me being me, of course I asked a question! In an attempt to gain some cracking AO3 critical interpretation, I asked Maria if she directed Faustus with the idea that he is an inherently evil character. Her response was not entirely what I was hoping for as she said that she did not really think of this during the directorial process. She did however say that she did not believe that Faustus was at all inherently evil, she just did not say why. But never mind that, we were all very excited to see for ourselves.
As the lights go down and the audience quieten, two men in black suits enter either side of the audience. They both light a match and stare intensely at each other until one match burns out. The first to have burned out their match will play Dr Faustus that night. I found it very interesting to see the actors Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan doubled up to play Faustus and Mephistopheles as, to me, it showed that Mephistopheles was the projection of Faustus’ inner demon – that you cannot have one without the either and vice versa. Sandy left through the audience leaving Oliver, or now Doctor Faustus, on stage alone in his study – which is where the play begins.
For those who do not know the play by Christopher Marlowe, a scholar called John Faustus decides that his next area of study shall be magic, but magic in the 16th century was thought of as highly anti-religious – even conjuring the devil was illegal, so the initial performances of Faustus were regarded extremely dangerous. Faustus conjures the devil’s servant, Mephistopheles, who convinces him to sign a contract with Lucifer (in his own blood) for twenty-four years of ultimate sovereignty providing that, at the end of this period, Faustus shall be condemned to hell and give his soul to the devil. Which is exactly what happens so, you know, spoilers.
Many aspects of the production thoroughly impressed me through the element of the unexpected. Costumes were minimal yet avant-garde as Mephistopheles wore a white suit without a shirt and bare feet for the duration of the play, yet in the masque of the seven deadly sins, costumes were very modernist and expressive. There was a combination of a cross-dressing lecherous character, video projections, a seductive female Lucifer and a romantic kiss between Faustus and Mephistopheles at the very end. The fact that Aberg was confident enough to break the boundaries of the classical performances of the play and execute this in a stylistic manner and carried it off (!) was very impressive. I, thankfully, was not the only one who was scared when Faustus performed the blasphemous and dark act of summoning the devil – plunging his clothes in white paint and painting a white pentagram on the stage, lighting boxes on fire whilst chanting Hebrew, hearing his voice echo as something unworldly spooky… I think it’s safe to say that no one was bored.
Every costume was either black, white or both, which could suggest the nature of heaven and hell, yet the hellish characters were the ones wearing white which could be interpreted as an inversion of faith. How, in society, people could appear to have a charismatic exterior, but their interior could be quite the opposite. It is quite common for messages like this to be portrayed in morality plays; whether Faustus is a wholly morality play is, perhaps, another matter. Aberg chooses for Lucifer to be played by a female because; why has Lucifer always been characterised as a male? There is no definitive gender to either God or the Devil.
The kiss at the end of the play also struck me as signifying that Faustus is kissing away his love for magic, to his ‘good’ self, or even for self-forgiveness after his self-blame.
Could anything be done better? Well, in this production the role of the Chorus was removed when, really, it would have been quite interesting to see how Maria would convey a moral and neutral character. She also made the brave move of not having an interval which, although effective, left some audience members (including myself) rather thirsty…
So all-in-all, a fantastic evening. I thoroughly recommend it (unless you’re a strong Catholic in which case you may spontaneously combust!) and thank you very much to Mr Sandell for organising it.