CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE’S play Doctor Faustus presents any modern director with a key problem. How can a contemporary audience, no longer in thrall to religious mythology, take seriously Faustus’s pact with the devil and his minister Mephistophilis, trading his immortal soul for 24 years of gratification of his every desire?
Director Maria Aberg’s answer is to treat as Faustus’s alter ego. If for Jean-Paul Sartre hell is other people, it is here situated within the individual. When questioned how he escaped the perpetual fire, Mephistophilis answers: “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.”
Aberg’s intention is clear as she alternates two actors in the lead roles. Performances open with these “twins” each lighting a match and the one whose match burns out first plays Faustus. From then on, we witness how — bored with acquiring intellectual fame in all branches of knowledge — Faustus turns to necromancy.
“Your trip begins,” Faustus is informed, as the devil’s production team— a grotesque scrum of rabbinical undertakers — assist Mephisophilis in presenting a series of surrealist floor shows to delight their customer.
Lucifer is here an attractive blond woman who stage manages hisintroduction to the seven deadly sins. She promises plenty of Disneyfied fun before Faustus sets off on a series of knockabout international exploits which include upsetting the Pope’s partying before incidentally killing him.
#Aberg and her creative team shape the production as an increasingly hallucinatory journey teetering on the edge of nightmare, culminating in Faustus’s final gift, a date with Helen of Troy —the “face that launched a thousand ships”— only to find this living spirit a lifeless doll in his arms.
It's the final statement of the illusory nature of his quest.On the night I saw the play Sandy Grierson as Faustus conveys the increasing awareness of the futility of his doomed choice, while Oliver Ryan’s Mephistophilis is a gleeful schoolboy angler playing with his catch.
Visually compelling and theatrically gripping, this Doctor Faustus is a thought-provoking comment on our increasing obsession with entertaining ourselves to death. Runs until August 4, box office: rsc.org.uk