Watching Maria Aberg’s production of Doctor Faustus in the Swan, I found it hard not to think of A-level drama projects. This isn’t just because I’m speaking at a sixth-form study day at the RSC next month tying in with this production, but because of the deliberately DIY aesthetic of the production, with its gaudy symbolism and messy stage. Aberg, typically an energising creative force at the RSC, here seemed to throw as many different ideas and gimmicks as possible at the stage, and it was in the incoherence (if at all) that the production seemed to cohere.
The production’s opening gambit brought on two men in suits, mirroring one another exactly, who approached each other, picked up a box of matches and each struck one. As pre-publicity material informed us, the actor who match burned out first would play Faustus; the other Mephistopheles. This performance’s ‘loser’ was Oliver Ryan, who remained onstage looking wistfully and with import at the stub of his match while Sandy Grierson sauntered off to prepare for his return as Mephistopheles. At one level this was an obvious gimmick, but at another the very arbitrariness of it forced attention to Faustus’s hubris and self-absorption. Faustus looked into a metaphorical mirror to see Mephistopheles, a reflection of himself with the same shaved head and clothes, and at the end of the production when he finally stabbed Mephistopheles, he looked down to find blood darkening his own shirt. This was a man who looked to himself before even his books.
Although the supernatural characters all appeared, they were also conceived of as projections – literally as two figures wrapped in white appeared to present Alexander and his paramour, and Nathan Parker’s video design projected classical clothes onto their blank bodies. Faustus remained onstage for the entire duration of the play (performed without an interval) and never in fact left his study. The spirits and demons appeared as half-realised grotesques: Theo Fraser Steele and Amy Rockson as the Duke and Duchess wore a rehearsal fat suit and hoop skirt respectively, and the Seven Deadly Sins were an eclectic gathering of Harley Quinn (particularly Ruth Everett’s cackling, knife-wielding Wrath), Rocky Horror and fetish enthusiasts. The choices were intellectually impoverished, pandering to stereotypes of ‘deviant’ behaviour and burlesque performativity, and yet it felt to me that the point was that these sprang from Faustus’s own impoverished imagination and revealed his own creative limitations.
Ryan’s Faustus was high-pitched, fast-speaking and nervous. He began the production surrounded by boxes, which he tore through to find the books that he threw about the stage in disgust. There was a meanness to his ambition, a small-mindedness that seemed insular from the start as he called in Valdes and Cornelius and effectively asked them to improve his life. The ignorant bravado of Will Bliss’s Valdes was telling here; Valdes was utterly confident but hesitant, as if making it up as he went along. The two became the Good and Bad Angel subsequently, dressed almost identically and leaning down from the balconies to watch their pupil tear himself apart, sharing lines with him and heightening the sense that they proceeded from his own projection.
The intensity of Faustus was exaggerated by his constant presence, and by his own scene-setting. His conjuration was played out at great length. He slashed a hole in the white sheet that initially blocked off the upstage area, and then threw boxes out, uncovered a pot of white paint, and proceeded to mark out an occult circle using the shirt from his own back as a makeshift brush on the black stage. This self-created circle was a constant presence for the rest of the production, dirtying the feet and clothes of everyone who walked over it, and constraining Faustus’s actions. When he and Mephistopheles described the places they had visited, Mephistopheles wrote their names out on the floor with chalk, confining these travels to the study. Whether Faustus literally met these people or not was hardly the point; the point was that his visual and aesthetic conceptualisation never transcended the amateurish, makeshift creativity with which he had begun.
The ensemble did a fine job of surrounding Faustus and providing the space for his misadventures, beginning with them approaching the screen from behind in silhouette and tearing it down to reveal a larger upstage area. The choric work was somewhat unimaginative, going through the kind of drawn-out physical sequences (usually involving crowds surrounding Faustus and manipulating him) that would get edited out of a drama assessment; but these sections did serve to exaggerate Faustus’s narcissism and keep him at the centre of busy activity while the more measured Mephistopheles watched. The pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins in particular served exactly its purpose as distraction – there was no attempt to seek higher meaning in this or similar sections, beyond distracting Faustus with open sexuality, spectacle (Covetousness was on stilts) and sensual experience (Natey Jones’s Lechery licking Faustus all over his head).
Faustus looked constantly for the approval of Mephistopheles, who stayed at the edge of the stage smiling at the smallness of Faustus’s world. Faustus was at his most childish when knocking platters out of the Pope’s hand, snickering as Mephistopheles exhorted him to ever more childish tricks; yet suddenly turning dark as he plunged a dagger into the Pope’s stomach. In the fascist court of the German emperor, Faustus put enormous horns on Tom McCall’s Benvolio, but the marks of the horns remained even after they were removed, and the subsequent assassination attempt resulted in horrific violence as Faustus’s spirits force-throttled the would-be murderers. Mephistopheles had very little to do beyond set up the situation; Faustus himself turned every encounter into petty violence.
Faustus’s descent was perhaps realised best, however, in the production’s most moving moment, where heightened production value worked to cast the scene as significant and even beautiful. Helen of Troy’s initial appearance to the scholars (a group of bowler-hatted, bespectacled men and women, constantly snickering and jerking) was on a video screen but, when Faustus asked to have Helen for his paramour, she appeared in person. Given the grotesquery of all the other characters, the appearance of the extremely young Jade Croot in a simple white dress cut through the ugliness. Orlando Gough’s gentle music for this scene underscored a moment of quietness as Helen and Faustus met, and it was Mephisopheles who spoke Faustus’s speech, his wry delivery mocking Faustus even as the scholar was mesmerised by the woman. Helen approached cautiously, first pushing him away, then suddenly leaping up and wrapping her legs around his torso, burying her face in his shoulder. The two then engaged in a long dance, she running around him and making him spin to follow her, then placing his hands around her throat for him to choke her. Then, Helen moved away and allowed Faustus to keep going through the motions of their dance of love and violence by himself while she stood next to Mephistopheles and watched. Faustus continued running in circles, sobbing and beating his own head as he tried to keep up the rhythm of his memory of Helen. The lonely desperation of Faustus at this point spoke to his isolation.
The production seemed to me to be resoundingly atheist in its sensibility. The horror of this production was not at damnation but at suicide. Faustus’s initial opening of his veins with a Stanley knife in order to write his deed of gift became a recurring image; when he offered to repent, Mephistopheles forced him to open up the veins on both arms, without writing anything. This marked the final downward arc, including the dreamlike state in which he embraced Helen, and his bloodied arms smeared her white dress with red. One potential (perhaps too literal) reading of this is to see it as a slow suicide, an idea evoked again at the end in the image of Faustus bleeding out onstage having tried to stab Mephistopheles. That the play ended with death rather than damnation suggested fear of the former rather than the latter, and the loneliness of his moment of death – not even the spirits returned for this – implied a life wasted rather than an afterlife betrayed. This made it no less moving, and the hopelessness of the ending was an effective indictment of his choices, and of the ease with which he had allowed Mephistopheles to win.