Theatre review: Christopher Marlowe’s “Dr Faustus” (presented by the RSC)

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

On Friday 23rd September, I attended a spectacular production of Christopher Marlowe’s “Dr Faustus” at the Barbican theatre in London, directed by Maria Aberg. After studying it for my English literature course and admiring its perplexing, demonic yet strangely intriguing story line, I knew this was a performance I had to witness.

The play began with two actors entering the stage, each one with the dual-role of either Faustus or Mephistopheles. The pair each light a match in the opening scene, determining who is going to play what part; the one who’s match goes out first, is doomed to the role of Faustus for the evening. As remarkably thrilling as this notion is on its own, the fact that neither actor knows what role they are set to take on for the evening makes the production seem all the more gripping, despite not being very practical if viewers want to see any of the actors playing a particular part. I for one was given the actor Sandy Greirson to portray the role of Faustus, with Oliver Ryan as Mephistopheles. Both actors seemed to do such an incredible job in the roles they were set, that I can’t seem imagine them any other way (unless, of course, I go again, which I have no objection to). One of the things I adored about the portrayal of Faustus was not only the progression of madness which the play itself outlines, but also the visual connotations of such a madness, which Aberg has depicted through the gradual undressing of the character, the cleanliness of his remaining clothing and, most importantly, the general state of the stage, which seems to get more visually eccentric as Faustus became more mentally troubled. 

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Furthermore, Aberg attempts to not only represent both the actors as one in the same through their multiple roles, but it could also be inferred that the personalities of their characters may equally be joined. This is mainly expressed through their similar attire throughout the show, as well as their notable friendship and reliance on each other; depicted through their “head-holding spin” and their shared kiss in the final scene of the play (sorry, spoiler alert!), which avoids simply separating the pair as a determined academic and a demonic follower of Lucifer.

Beyond all the visual links to the characters within themselves, the most impressive spectacle of the entire performance in my opinion, was the representation of the seven-deadly sins. Aberg creates this presentation with an element of cabaret, giving it the notion of a “show within a show”, with each of the sins representing themselves in a flamboyant and, in the case of sins such as “Wrath”(presented as a sweet young girl), juxtaposed manner.The sheer brilliance of the costumes, particularly that of covetousness who was tasked to play her role on stilts, cast definite amazement towards the audience and brought their representation to life.

The depiction of Wittenburg’s scholars within the play also brought interest and a disturbingly new dark twist on Marlowe’s play, presenting them as high-energy, devilish creatures with white faces and black hats, accompanied with a representative minor-key melody which in itself created an atmosphere of malevolent, dark behaviour. My most favourite scene regarding these interesting characters took place after Faustus’ revenge on the pope, whereby the scholars immerse themselves in a rhythmic, almost tribal dance display with the white-masked members of the papacy. The dance in itself not only outlined another style of performance, but furthermore was accompanied by a miraculous display of white powder and blood-red confetti pieces as both groups competed with each other in a circular display of movement. Visually, it was astounding. 

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The RSC has never failed to impress me with its creative revivals of Shakespearean plays, amongst others, and it has certainly maintained this reputation after the performance of Dr. Faustus.Unfortunately the running of the production at the Barbican is on its last performance this evening, however, should you ever encounter it again, I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is a fan of the play, or simply the strange and extraordinary.

#DrFaustus #Marlowe #RSC #Theatre

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