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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Doctor Faustus
Barbican Theatre  Autumn 2016

As part of a season of Shakespeare's contemporaries (also including Jonson's Alchemist) the RSC transfers from Stratford Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, in an oddly enervated production punctuated by elaborate but irrelevant interludes of music, dance and spectacle. 

Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan alternate the roles of Faustus and Mephistophilis, each night's casting determined by a game of chance (Whose lit match will burn out first?) in the opening seconds. I saw Grierson as Faustus, and anything I report might be different when Ryan plays the role. 

As directed by Maria Aberg, Grierson's Faustus is passive and disconnected throughout, more a peripheral observer of his own adventure than its centre. In the opening scene, in which Faustus considers other areas of study before choosing demonic magic, Grierson meanders dispassionately through his library (all packed up in cartons, like an undergraduate's dorm room at end of term), showing no real attraction to or rejection of law, medicine and the other topics. 

Thereafter, he is literally rarely centre stage, most often off to the side or rear while others dominate, and never not even in the concentrated horror of his final hour before damnation particularly emotional. 

Meanwhile Oliver Ryan's Mephistophilis does have some sense of a personality, a somewhat muted variant on Dickens' Uriah Heep, obsequious and subservient at the start, but more openly bitter and contemptuous as he gains control over his prey. 

Marlowe is a writer of great speeches and rhetorical flourishes, and director Maria Aberg seems mistrustful of their (long-proven) ability to be theatrically alive because, along with movement director Ayse Tashkiran, she takes every opportunity to break up the talk with theatrical razzle-dazzle. 

Mephisophilis' attendant demons are whitefaced bowler-hatted figures out of German expressionism or a Kurt Weill musical, Lucifer is a woman (Eleanor Wyld) channelling Joanna Lumley, and the Seven Deadly Sins are a Broadway chorus line made up of punk-goth-drag grotesques. The attack on the Cardinals is another dance number, while the Duke and Duchess are refugees from Ubu Roi. 

None of this is particularly evocative or even relevant, and these interruptions all serve to marginalize Faustus even further. By the end Faustus doesn't even get to speak the most famous lines in the play, the ode to Helen of Troy, and the staging of that scene suggests that director Aberg had Goethe's Gretchen in mind more than Marlowe's Helen. 

This is a great play, and a very theatrical one. Four hundred years of productions have shown that. But not this one.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Doctor Faustus  - RSC at Barbican Theatre 2016

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