The Tragical History Of The Life And Death Of Doctor Faustus – The Swan Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon

Writer: Christopher Marlowe
Director: Maria Aberg
Reviewer: Bethaney Rimmer


At each performance of Dr Faustus, the decision of who shall play the title role and who shall be Mephistophilis is left to chance. Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan enter the stage from opposite sides, mirroring each other’s movements precisely as they reach centre stage,face each otherand light a match. The one whose match goes out first ‘loses’ and is to play the damned Doctor. On this press evening, Ryan’s match is the first to diminish.

The play opens on Faustus’ study, which consists of piles of books, boxes filled with paper and a clearly frustrated Faustus, who throws the books on the floor, clearly not finding any satisfaction from their contents. Deciding he needs a better understanding of the world that cannot be acquired from human knowledge, he summons Mephistophilis and asks him to strike a deal with the devil for 24 years of power and knowledge and in return he will give him his soul. After the bargain is set in blood, the escapades begin.

Ryan is compelling as Faustus, although his speech at the beginning could do with more clarity and volume. In order to summon Mephistophilis, he draws a symbol on the floor using his shirt and white paint. The drawing is impossible to see for those seated on the ground level of the Swan Theatre, so the overall effect is lost,but setting paper alight at each of the five corners is a nice touch. Those looking down on the stage will certainly have a better view of the scene as a whole. Mephistophilis’ entrance is accompanied with some chanting, which adds a bit of chill but does go on for a bit too long. He is first seen as a shadow walking towards Faustus from behind a dirty white backdrop, which is tense to begin with, but as he steps through a small slit and appears in tight white trousers and blazer, the menace and tension in that momentdisappears.

Grierson gives a quietly sinister portrayal of Mephistophilis, occasionally funny and very interesting to watch and listen to. His walk is elegant, reminiscent of an animal stalking its prey, which makes him all the more menacing as he manages to get Faustus to sign the deal by slitting his own arm and writing in his own blood without too much effort. He tends to stand to the side throughout most of the play, occasionally interjecting when necessary, but he still exudes control and is a constant reminder that Faustus’ clock is ticking.

One of the stand-out scenes is when Faustus is introduced to the seven deadly sins. These characters are surreal and their costumes aresome of the best in the show. This section is almost a show in itself, not too dissimilar to something you would find in a Tim Burton film. This is in contrasted to the scene between Faustus and Helen of Troy; Jade Croot gives a physically brilliant performance, but the scene itself is uncomfortable to watch.

While there are elements of magic, this version is not as frightening as it could be. The cast is excellent and all give powerful performances, but the audience is not frightened and is left feeling unconvinced of the presence of maleficent spirits. Perhaps the music could be used more to heighten the sense of danger and theimpending reckoning. This is an enjoyable production, but it does feel like something is missing.

Runs until 4 August 2016 | Image: Helen Maybanks

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One Comment

  1. Ryan certainly did mumble his way through the first 10 minutes. The direction is very poor: far too many contemporary dance numbers. The mood and themes of the original are largely sacrificed to an often abstract and lamely ‘modernised’ version.
    It wasn’t all bad but I think people deserved more of Marlowe – and less of a pretty indulgent interpretation of the play.

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