Theater Reviews

Doctor Faustus at the Swan Theatre

Kelly Newman O’Connor

For performances of Doctor Faustus, a sign posted outside the RSC Swan Theatre advises audiences that “This production contains fire and scenes that some may find distressing.” Such as the sight of devils dragging a man down to hell, maybe? Though that is not how this production ends, there is still plenty to disturb, distress and terrify, as director Maria Aberg vividly redefines the notion of damnation for a 21st century audience. At the start of the performance, two identically dressed actors face each other silently. As if performing a mirror acting exercise, they strike matches simultaneously and watch them burn. The first match to expire dictates which actor plays the role of Faustus, while the other actor exits to change into the costume of Mephistophilis. This bold choice gives Oliver Ryan and Sandy Grierson both of the plum roles, but without the safety net of scheduled role alternation. The night we saw it, Ryan played Faustus, his physicality all restless agitation and sudden frozen stillness as the enormity of his deeds appalls him. In contrast, Grierson’s Mephistophilis was smiling and sinuous, his relaxed economy of movement at odds with his tense fingernail-chewing and cat-at-the-mouse-hole stare. Both were superb—and no doubt would have been if the match-burning had gone the other way. The theater program includes a quotation from William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, outlining the idea of “a second self—a wraithlike observer who…watch[es] with dispassionate curiosity as his companion struggles against the oncoming disaster, or decides to embrace it”. [1] Aberg’s staging, which repeatedly puts the two men face to face, emphasizes this sense of a demonic doppelgänger witnessing a suicide.

The trope of the dark mirror with which the performance begins informs much of the blocking and characterization, as the solipsistic journey of the discontented Faustus keeps bringing him back to his self-destructive starting-point. Aberg has removed most of the scenes with the scholars and Wagner, leaving little to impede the flow of action between Faustus and Mephistophilis. Like the characters in Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel, the doctor cannot escape from his study, even though he imagines that he is traveling the world over many years. Surrounded by boxes of books, Faustus flips open one after another, searching for something to divert him. Picking up a bible peppered with tape flags, he reads aloud, “The reward of sin is death” (1.1.41), but does not seem to connect this message to himself. [2] He has some other secret books, hidden beneath papers in one of the file boxes, over which he gloats like a pornography addict. These are the necromancy texts, and their power excites him. “This night I’ll conjure,” Faustus declares,  “though I die therefore” (1.1.168), he adds, accepting his demise as a certainty. In fact, as the action races through the stripped-down text, it feels as if Mephistopheles has played the ultimate trick on his victim—instead of 24 years, Faustus passes only a single hour, hallucinating visions of power and pleasure as his life ebbs out of the self-inflicted wound from signing the devil’s document. Whenever Faustus expresses doubt about what he is doing, Mephistophilis presses a box-cutter back into his hands for his victim to re-open the gash on his arm. Once he signs with his blood, he seems disconnected from the world; even when Wagner (Nicholas Lumley) brings him his midnight snack (milk and cookies—a poignantly mundane detail) and tries to talk his master out of his mood, Faustus keeps his distance and rushes through the evening break so that he can return to his demonic trip. [3] Everything he sees—the pope, Alexander the Great, Helen of Troy—arises from his imagination; everything he does—stabbing the Pope, killing the Emperor’s guards, molesting Helen—pulls him deeper into his own destruction. As the Pope (Timothy Speyer) staggers off, bleeding to death, he turns and snarls at Faustus in a guttural voice straight out of The Exorcist: “Damned be this soul forever for this deed” (3.2.89 B-text). The whole scene (3.1 A-text), which begins comically with Faustus knocking plates of food around, has been a set-up, one that binds him more cruelly within his compact. He is trapped in a claustrophobic nightmare in which Mephistophilis is simply a reflection of himself, and his friends appear in other, more sinister guises. Valdes and Cornelius double as the good and evil angels, and as they warn him “Faustus, thou art damned,” Ryan speaks the line at the same time, underscoring the sense that this is all in Faustus’s head, and that he fully comprehends what he is doing to himself.

The relentlessly frightening production contains several daringly long wordless sequences that increase the tension. To set his stage for the summoning of Mephistophilis, Faustus first has to clear the room of the clutter of file boxes; cutting a long slash in the plastic sheeting curtain that conceals a portion of the upstage, he chucks box after box through the gap. He pushes the remaining few boxes into a circle, then “anagrammatize[s]” (1.3.9) by scrubbing a huge circle and pentagram onto the floor with his balled-up shirt dipped in white paint. When spoken words finally do come (the Latin incantation from both versions of the play text), they are overlaid with an electronic droning buzz: composer Orlando Gough writes in a program note that he wanted to evoke the noise of an MRI machine, to create a soundscape that was “a mixture of the seductive and the repulsive.” [4] A few lines into the spell, amplified voices begin to echo Faustus’s utterances, and as a cold blue light rises behind the plastic curtain (Lee Curran’s lighting design deftly mixes horror film and nightclub moods), the white-clad figure of Mephistophilis swims into view. Later, after Faustus signs his soul away, zombie-like spirits of hell—flailing, jerky limbs and Expressionistic makeup—hiss and chatter the Latin mass, spoken backwards, as they thrash through the curtain to surround and hoist aloft their new victim.

The most disturbing of these non-verbal sequences is the appearance of Helen of Troy. Faustus’ lust for her leads to his most transgressive act, which Aberg translates for a modern audience by casting a child in the role. Jade Croot is seventeen, but looks about twelve, and as she enters, unsmiling, barefoot and dressed in a simple white tee-shirt dress, Faustus seems too stunned to speak. The play’s most famous speech, the panegyric to Helen’s beauty, is then given to Mephistophilis, who delivers it as if prompting a forgetful actor. “Her lips suck forth my soul” (5.2.94), the demon croons, though there has been no kiss; he seems to be both giving stage directions to Helen, and predicting what will befall Faustus. Croot’s physicality is that of a little girl—she pushes Faustus away, but moments later jumps into his arms and wraps her legs around him, sobbing, in a chilling parody of a daughter in need of comfort from her father. Their movements become a creepy pas de deux, in which every time he touches her she goes limp, like a dead doll. Sliding out of his embrace, she takes his hand and wraps it around her neck, forcing him to throttle her. As she moves away to join Mephistophilis, Faustus continues to dance with her shadow on the floor, and the scene culminates with his lying down and miming sex with nothingness, as the other two slowly walk offstage. Mephistophilis takes out the box-cutter as they exit, and as he later returns with bloodied hands, it is suddenly unclear what we have been watching: was Helen a spirit that he summoned up to take the most perverting form he could think of, or was she a real child, brought there to suffer at Faustus’ hands and to die when the devil had no more use for her? The scene’s unsettling ambiguity epitomizes the entire production.

From his first appearance, smiling sweetly at his newest plaything, to his final scene, inexorably holding out the box-cutter and offering a kiss of ultimate betrayal, Grierson’s Mephistophilis fully inhabits the role of a tormented angel who wants to drag down as many as he can with him. When Faustus asks him, “How comes it then that thou art out of hell?” he suddenly appears the demon that he is, rebuking the man for his stupid question: “This is hell,” he roars, lunging at Faustus, “nor am I out of it” (1.3.76-77). He knows that the best way to win another soul is to play on his victim’s sense of superiority: “It is comfort to the wretched to have companions in misery” (2.1.42), [5] he explains, smiling mirthlessly. This smile only appears, though, when Faustus can see it; when he looks away, distracted by yet another show, Grierson’s expression drops into cold malevolence. Periodically charming, he gives the thumbs-up to Faustus’s wishes, mocking his request for a wife before seducing him with thoughts of “the fairest courtesans… as beautiful/ As was bright Lucifer before his fall” (2.1.151-156). As Faustus excitedly lists all of the places that his newly-bought power puts within his reach, the devil cheerfully scribbles the itinerary on the floor within the pentagram, but after a few names, he simply scrawls “Venice, etc.” with an irritated eye-roll to the audience. Mephistophilis grows menacing, however, when Faustus expresses second thoughts; even when the devil brings out the big guns (Eleanor Wyld is an icily elegant Lucifer) he knows there is a chance that he might lose his prey. Adept with the carrot and the stick, he tantalizes Faustus with the show of the Seven Deadly Sins. Never taking his eyes off the enraptured man, he calmly waits to collect his winnings—a pose he repeats in the final moments of the production. As he crouches over the exhausted Faustus and hands him the box-cutter, he wills Faustus to take the instrument of his physical destruction. The two lock eyes as they did at the start of the show; Faustus suddenly and violently stabs at Mephistophilis—and the bloodstain spreads across his own torso.

The nervous energy of Ryan’s Faustus is like that of a drug addict: caught in a cycle of rampage and remorse, he always craves another fix of excitement; like so many addicts before him, he thinks it will be easy to quit. He races towards his own destruction, feverishly gabbling magic spells and committing every ugly act that comes into his head while fearing to think about the consequences. Enchanted by his new best friend—who else has such cool stuff and dances with him with such abandon?—he repeatedly fails to hear the warning note of damnation. The tolling bell in the final scene shocks Faustus into terrified reality, and he gazes at the audience as if the spirits of hell are closing in on him. Ryan speaks quickly throughout the whole performance, but he speeds up even more for Faustus’ final soliloquy, making time run even faster. The staging of the last moments (no thunder and lightning, no host of devils pulling him down to hell) focuses on the miserable end of a suicide: this is where his ambition has led him, and as he bleeds out, choking on his despairing last words—“Ah, Mephistophilis!”—he finally recognizes what he knew all along. A swift blackout follows; by cutting the moralizing Chorus speeches that bookend the play, Aberg makes Faustus’ story individual and immediate.

A strong, tight ensemble populates the realm around Faustus and Mephistophilis, and Naomi Dawson’s costume design of Nazi-inflected uniforms and ghostly friar robes (charcoal blacks and chalky whites with occasional touches of blood red) leaves the audience in no doubt about the nature of these spirits. The Seven Deadly Sins is a gothic cabaret of grotesques, writhing around in song and dance for their rapt audience of one. The performance goes on for a bit longer than necessary, perhaps to afford the Faustus actor a brief rest. Standing on gnarled stilts that suggested Antony Sher’s Richard III, Covetousness (Rosa Robson) stalks Faustus, driving him into the clutches of Lechery (Natey Jones), a beefy, bearded man in a sequined gown. When the Emperor’s soldiers ambush and kill Faustus (or so they think—Faustus gets up again like a horror-film zombie), the spirits of hell surround them. Clutching their own throats and clenching their fists, the spirits murder the twitching and writhing soldiers without laying a hand on them. These persecutors later double as a casually menacing group of Faustus’ fellow scholars. Swinging their beer bottles, they taunt him with fruitless glimpses of his lost peace of mind: “Belike he is grown into some sickness by being over-solitary” (5.2.7-8). Within the scene, though, they revert to their more traditional roles as Faustus’s concerned friends, murmuring their choric lines “Who, Faustus?…God forbid!” with the force of prayers. As Faustus feverishly confesses his crimes, they remove their hats and spectacles and drop their malevolent expressions. “Faustus, farewell,” they sadly intone, leaving him one by one as his final hour begins to toll.

The two-hours’ traffic (just under, in fact—with no intermission to dilute the power of this brilliant and gripping performance) delivers tightly-packed metaphysical terror for the 21st century. As the actors (and cleverly used video projections, designed by Nathan Parker) body forth Faustus’s direst wishes, Aberg’s production reminds us of T.S. Eliot’s prescient answer to the common Sartrean assertion that “hell is other people”: “Hell is oneself./ Hell is alone, the other figures in it/ Merely projections.”


[1] Quoted in RSC program The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, 2016.

[2] Some of Aberg’s extensive cuts follow the B-text (as does the spelling of Mephistophilis), but the preponderance of her script seems to be from the A-text, with some passages culled from the B-text. All textual citations come from the edition of David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen (Oxford 1995), and they are from the A-text unless otherwise indicated. I will cite “A” or “B” in cases of a line appearing only in one or the other version of the text.

[3] Lumley speaks the lines given in the B-text to an Old Man: “O, gentle Faustus, leave this damned art,/ This magic, that will charm thy soul to hell,/ And quite bereave thee of salvation.” (5.1.34-36 B-text)

[4] Gough, Orlando. “Devil Music.” Essay printed in RSC program, 2016.

[5] The Mephistophilis actor here speaks in English what Marlowe writes in Latin—“Solamen miseris sociois habuisse doloris.”


Categories: Theater Reviews

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