The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 14th March, 2016
Two men approach each other, mirroring each other’s actions. They each strike a match – the man holding the match that burns out the first will play Faustus in this evening’s production, the other will be Mephistopheles. Tonight it’s Sandy Grierson who gets his fingers burned and so his Faustus will play with fire. This is the opening gimmick in Maria Aberg’s eccentric production of Christopher Marlowe’s play about sin and damnation.
Duality runs through it. The cast is either dressed in black or in white. Male and female actors swap parts (I mean roles!) – Eleanor Wyld appears as Lucifer, a kind of Debbie Harry figure in a John Travolta white suit. She introduces a cabaret, the Seven Deadly Sins on parade as drag queens and sideshow freaks. It’s hard to see why Faustus or anyone would be tempted to commit any of them.
The production is packed with ideas, most of them effective. The summoning of Mephistopheles is creepily atmospheric and tense. Once Faustus makes his pact, we’re waiting for his allotted 24 years to elapse so we can see his downfall. The problem lies in those 24 years. Given that Faustus has bargained away his eternal soul, he doesn’t seem to have much fun. Invisible, he knocks the Pope’s dinner around a bit. His only real enjoyment is when he revels in his (temporary) immortality. He has a pretty colourless time of it.
Oliver Ryan’s Mephistopheles is subtly inhuman but when he’s standing next to Grierson’s Faustus all I can think of is the Pet Shop Boys. Much of Marlowe’s verse is garbled or lost in the percussive music (composed by Orlando Gough) – although the famous Helen of Troy speech (Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?) is handled well, with a rag doll performance from Jade Croot. The music, played live, is responsible for creating most of the show’s atmosphere and keeping things lively – I just wanted it to be more fun. There are moments of dark humour – Mephistopheles is a devil with a Stanley knife, but overall the tone is curiously vibrant but dour.
We ought to feel that Faustus’s pact is an attractive option before we learn, as he does, that it’s not worth it. By the time his final hour approaches and he pleads with Time to stand still, I don’t feel he has been on enough of a journey to have any real sense of tragedy. He needs more peaks before he sinks into his final trough.