Two figures stand upon the stage, each halves of the same man, mirroring each other’s movements. They strike a match, and the one whose light lasts the longest remains to play Dr Faustus, while the other returns as Mephistopheles. The actors might play either role on any given night.
Maria Aberg’s production of Christopher Marlowe’s play for the Royal Shakespeare Company is impressively vibrant. Naomi Dawson’s unobtrusive, economic design presents us with Faustus’ study – boxes of papers, piles of books – the mess of someone who lives in a hurry. Oliver Ryan’s portrayal of the scholar who misuses and wastes his genius is compellingly frenetic: “Divinity adieu” (as he dumps Jerome’s bible centre stage), followed shortly by his truthful relishing of “it is magic that hath ravished me”. Orlando Gough’s percussive score creates a mood of inevitability while Faustus screws up his shirt and uses it to paint a pentangle between five boxes in which he then lights fires.
Sandy Grierson’s Mephistopheles – pale, elegant, predatory, and effortlessly menacing – comes to take control of Faustus’s soul, a pact written in blood. He removes Faustus’s shoes and blackens (rather than washes) his disciple’s feet, making them hoof-like with ash from the fire.
Ayse Tashkiran’s movement direction creates moments of energy and reflection throughout. The Seven Deadly Sins are presented as a grotesque, exquisitely controlled and irresistible cabaret. Jade Croot’s wordless, sinister, and devastatingly child-like Helen of Troy dances to death in Faustus’s arms.
It is as if Aberg has found a new play – something soulful, and certainly true – her production makes us feel Faustus’s trapped and lonely damnation afresh for our own times.