Doctor Faustus – March 2016

Experience: 3/10

By Christopher Marlowe

Directed by Maria Aberg

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 30th March 2106

Maria Aberg is fast heading for “Danger, Will Robinson” status, given to those directors whose work we avoid so as not to waste any of our precious remaining minutes on this planet. This production moved her a good few notches closer – only memories of her As You Like It stand between her and oblivion. (I doubt this will trouble her in the least.) Tonight’s offering was dire in every way except the performances by the lead actors – we have huge respect for the work they do, and given the unfortunate nature of the production they did as well as could be expected. Even so, I avoided adding to the applause at the end, and Steve’s contribution was polite but unenthusiastic.

To be fair, the danger signs were clearly visible well in advance. And I’m not just talking about the potential for an unpleasant theatrical experience: there were notices by the entrances warning the public of distressing scenes, and although we weren’t sure what the reason was, one member of the audience had to be helped out during the show. But even in theatrical terms we had some concerns. We haven’t enjoyed much of Maria Aberg’s work – As You Like It notwithstanding – Christopher Marlowe is not my favourite playwright – the recent The Jew Of Malta notwithstanding – and the story of Doctor Faustus has never impressed me. The best production I’ve seen was at Leeds in 2013, a co-production with Glasgow Citizens, and many times tonight I found myself thinking of that performance with nostalgia. Comparisons may indeed be “odorous”, but they are also inevitable, at least for those of us who see so many productions, and tonight’s version did not fare well in that contest.

However, we enjoyed Sandy Grierson playing Ariel in The Tempest at the RSC – the shipwreck season in 2012 – and by pure coincidence, the previous Hamlet understudy performance we saw in 2013 had Oliver Ryan playing the lead and doing it pretty well, given that production’s limitations. So we were keen to see how these two actors would job-share in this production. We’re still keen, but given that the choice of who plays which character is apparently down to the burning time of two matches, we’re not sure how much of our lives we want to waste fulfilling this particular desire. So the best thing I can do now is record as faithfully as I can my impressions of this performance, just in case it’s the only one we sit through. Hang on, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

The set reminded Steve of the recent Arden Of Faversham, with banker’s boxes in several stacks around the stage, plastic sheeting in three panels covering the back of the thrust and plain black flooring underneath. I could also see a few books on the floor near the boxes, and later I realised there was a small stool with a mug on it by the back left stack of boxes. There seemed to be a light over there as well, but as we were by the right hand walkway, my view of that area was limited. The side balconies were blank, and I couldn’t see anything lurking above the stage, although some strip lights, vertically hung, were lowered for the later scenes.

With the lights still up, and the musicians suitably warmed up but silent, Sandy and Oliver came on stage, Sandy by the left walkway and Oliver by the right. They were dressed identically in dark suits with white shirts, and Oliver had shaved his head to resemble Sandy’s. They paused at the corners of the stage and looked at each other, then moved to the centre where they faced each other, crouched down and picked up a box (or book) of matches. They stood up, each took out a match and, almost simultaneously, struck them. Oliver’s match burned out several seconds before Sandy’s, meaning that Oliver would play Faustus tonight, and Sandy shook his match to snuff it out before leaving the stage to prepare for his role.

So far, so good. We liked the mirroring, and were totally happy with either outcome at this point. Faustus moved over to the back, took off his jacket and grabbed a book from one of the boxes near the front of the stage. He went into a diatribe about the uselessness of various avenues of academic and scientific study, although I found it hard to follow his speech at first, as his delivery was a little blurred. I managed to tune in around the time he was dissing medicine, and I noticed a large puff of dust when he slammed the divinity book shut. He’d thrown these books down in the middle of the floor, but when he picked up his book of magic, he held it close to him and almost caressed it.

His servant, Wagner, brought on a plate of food and something to drink, and left these items on another box. Faustus told him to fetch a couple of his friends, and they turned up a short while later. I lost the plot here, literally, as I couldn’t make out what they were saying to Faustus, and one of the two had the most dreary delivery I’ve ever heard. Nearly put me to sleep! However, the scene was soon over: there were some ringing tones from the musicians and the men left.

Faustus was now studying a large book while the musicians played some abstract music for a bit. This was one of the areas where I felt the production was weak: there was too much reliance on music, and uninteresting music at that, instead of dialogue or soliloquy. Faustus began searching through the boxes, throwing them around the place and scattering books and papers everywhere until he found what he was looking for – a box cutter. He used this to slit the central piece of plastic sheeting down the middle, and then went into another frenzy, throwing a load of boxes through the slit along with some of the scattered papers. Eventually he reduced the number of boxes by about half, and began placing some of them (five, as it turned out) round the stage, taking off their lids and placing those flat on the floor beside their box. The music carried on all this while, a sort of metallic jazz, and I was finding it all a bit boring.

Faustus took a swig of booze – don’t know where the bottle came from – then took off his shirt, wrapping it tightly round his hand (he was still wearing a vest). He took the lid off a pot of paint, and using the bundled up shirt as a rag, got on his hands and knees to paint a white circle on the stage within the area marked by the five boxes. He then used the boxes to create a pentagram – God this was boring – by painting a line between alternating boxes. It was only 7:45 p.m., and I was already dreading the next hour and half.

The large book was still open in the middle of the circle, and I was very grateful when he picked it up and the music died down. He read something out – didn’t catch it – and then chalked some symbols within the various bits of the pentagram/circle. His trousers were smeared with white paint after crawling all over the floor. To finish the spell, he lit fires in the boxes which must have been flame-proof, Health and Safety being what it is. He began a sort of groaning chant, which was picked up by the music and became closer to a song, but remained pretty unpleasant throughout. I could hear another voice joining in, a sort of echo, coming from behind the plastic panels. A bar of light became visible on the other side of the plastic and gradually brightened, and a figure moved in front of it briefly before Mephistopheles emerged through the slit.

Sandy was now dressed in a white-ish suit, with no shirt and bare, blackened feet. After introducing himself to Faustus, and explaining that Lucifer’s permission was needed before he could serve Faustus as he wished, Faustus sent him off to do just that, and then sat down on one of the boxes to wait for his return. Two angels appeared, one on each side balcony. They were both wearing dark robes, and their matching dark wings were just visible behind them. With no distinguishing features, it was hard to tell which was the good angel and which the evil angel, and although the dialogue gave some clues, I found it hard to follow their arguments, so I was none the wiser until much later in the play. At least Mephistopheles’ arrival had livened things up, and I was more hopeful about the rest of the performance.

Faustus spent a bit of time wrestling with his conscience, aided, or not, by the angels. On Mephistopheles’ return, we got the first (and only, from my point of view) laugh of the evening, when Mephistopheles explained his desire to get more souls into hell – it’s a comfort to the wretched to have company in their misery. (I don’t know if that’s an accurate quote, but it’s pretty close.) As Mephistopheles was preparing Faustus to make the deed of gift in his own blood, I saw echoes of Prospero and Ariel in their relationship. However, Mephistopheles gave Faustus a knife to cut himself, and as the blood ran down his arm – couldn’t see much from my angle/distance – someone in the right front row seemed to have a problem and slumped down. While the people next to him tried to help, Sandy told the stage management to stop the performance and get front of house to help out. Very commendable. I don’t know if they’ve had a prior experience, but they handled it well. The relevant people arrived quickly, the lights were brought up a bit and Sandy and Oliver went off while the chap was being attended to. He was soon being helped out of the theatre, and someone came on to announce that the actors would be restarting in a couple of minutes. Several people got up and left, presumably for a quick trip to the loo, but the actors came back on after about ten seconds, and went straight back into the scene. Some folk had to wait for a suitable gap in the performance to get back to their seats (yes, folks, they actually came back!)

They restarted at the point where Faustus was complaining that his blood was congealing, and Mephistopheles went off to get some fire – matches – to warm it up and make it flow again. There was a puzzling section where Faustus saw the words “homo fugit” written on his arm, and got into a panic. Mephistopheles came up behind him and put his hands over Faustus’ eyes, and images of faces appeared on the plastic sheets. They were in black and white, and some looked devilish, and afterwards Faustus was calmer and ready to seal the deal.

Faustus finally completed the deed of gift, but kept the paper away from Mephistopheles until he’d enumerated all of his demands. Mephistopheles had his back to me for this bit, but he seemed to be laid back about it all, as if Faustus wasn’t asking for anything particularly difficult. When he did get his hands on the deed, he folded it and tucked it safely in an inner pocket.

Faustus’ first request was for a wife. Mephistopheles put him off, using members of the audience as examples to illustrate his arguments, and providing a few more laughs along the way. He succeeded with this tactic, remarkably easily if you ask me, and Faustus forgot all about marrying a wife from then on. Mephistopheles did throw down a small book which Faustus picked up, after he’d requested information on various subjects – without a text it’s a little difficult to remember each item in order. With each new subject that Faustus added, Mephistopheles indicated the same slim volume, which, if it truly contained all that information, was now taking on Tardis-like qualities.

Faustus decided to try out one of the spells, but he had difficulty with the words. Mephistopheles began it again, chanting the words, and Faustus joined in. Shapes appeared behind the screens, moving around for a while until they burst through – there were bits of plastic sheeting hanging off the frames. These figures wore black suits and hats and had white faces, and they joined in the singing. I’ll refer to them as the black spirits from now on.

Now that the screens were gone, I could see the back wall, which was half silvery sheeting, a bit crinkled as with tin foil, and half strings of silvery beads, as were used in Greg Doran’s Richard II to create the visual effects. There were also several thin vertical strip lights which had a bluish tinge to their light, and one chunkier column with the same light. There was a low ramp from the back of the thrust to this back wall, and while images appeared on the wall, the black spirits picked Faustus up and carried him to the rear stage area, where they left him (and left the stage as well).

Faustus and Mephistopheles had their astronomy discussion back there, and then there was another chat with the good and bad angel. The light column turned purple, and a busty blond came on at the back wearing a white outfit and high heels; this turned out to be Lucifer. She promised to show Faustus the seven deadly sins, so while Faustus and Mephistopheles sat out of the way, a saxophone began to play a jazzy number, and seven more figures entered, dressed in bizarre costumes. They pranced around for a while, there was some unintelligible singing, and finally the sins came forward one at a time to present themselves to Faustus.

First up was Pride, a man in a grey streaked catsuit (if I’m reading my notes correctly) and a sparkly ruff. Covetousness was a woman on stilts with a white face and cap, otherwise mostly in black items of underwear. Wrath wore a half black and half white wig, a white flared skirt and a black top, and brandished a knife. Envy wore another black outfit, which included a balaclava. Gluttony had a pig mask over his face which he removed and put on top of his head. He also had the Guinness Book of Records fat suit. Sloth was lying down towards the rear of the stage on the left, and spoke his bit from there – too much effort to get up – and finally Lechery was a transgender woman who was forever grabbing ‘her’ crotch, except when she was licking Faustus’ face. ‘Her’ outfit was something in black and white which represented sexuality, I suppose. After the contributions were finished, they rounded things off with a reprise of the “Seven” song – I was finally able to make out the words – and then they left, as did Lucifer. Unlike us, Faustus enjoyed the show.

To celebrate, Faustus linked hands with Mephistopheles and they spun round for a bit, after which Mephistopheles drew something on the ramp at the back with chalk – no idea what. Next Faustus planned his travel itinerary, and when he asked to be invisible, Mephistopheles bent down and took Faustus’ shoes off; Faustus put each foot up on Mephistopheles’ knee to make it easier. Mephistopheles then smeared some black stuff on Faustus’ feet, so they resembled his own – the man was now invisible.

The Pope and some friars came on, singing, and Faustus and Mephistopheles had fun with them, putting black crosses on the Pope’s clothes and throwing the food and drink around. Then Faustus stabbed the Pope, and a whole group of singing and dancing friars were attacked by the black spirits. Each time the spirits stamped their feet, the friars reacted as if they’d been hit. Their hoods were pulled off, and a shower of red glitter descended – ooh goodie, can I get some of that? – after which the, presumably deceased, friars went off and the black spirits grouped up and moved towards Faustus. He was able to control them, but I was finding the constant singing and dancing extremely boring and repetitive so I was glad when it finally stopped.

The next arrivals were more people in black, but this time they wore military outfits with long red gloves. Although the singing had stopped, there was the sound of a drum in the background, probably throughout the scene. Faustus spoke to their leader, who was apparently the German Emperor, though as Faustus was still in his vest and very scruffy trousers, I suspect they weren’t impressed with him.

To show what he could do, Faustus brought Alexander and his paramour on; they stood at the back and were dressed like a Cubist painting. One of the emperor’s men was critical of Faustus, and Mephistopheles put horns on his head, while the black spirits made clicking sounds. The man left the stage, and when Mephistopheles followed him to remove the horns, he took the box cutter with him.

Some of the soldiers planned to kill Faustus, but he was sitting on the ramp watching while they plotted. When he came through the panels, they attacked him and tried to pull him apart, and this time it was Mephistopheles who sat at the back watching the activity. One soldier got hold of some of the plastic sheeting and put it over Faustus’ head to smother him. It appeared to work – they certainly put a lot of effort into the murder – but after they stopped, thinking Faustus was dead, he got up again and understandably called on Mephistopheles for revenge. The soldiers were held in an invisible grip by the black spirits, and twitched in agony. They were then taken off to hell, leaving Faustus alone on stage.

Wagner came on again to tell Faustus off, but he was soon chased away, and when Mephistopheles returned he brought news that the Duke of somewhere or other wanted to see Faustus. The black spirits returned and formed up on the ramp, and then, to the inevitable musical accompaniment, two misshapen figures came on. The Duke wore a Gluttony-style fatsuit while his wife had a padded bra and hoops for a skirt. I thought these might be interesting echoes of the earlier seven deadly sins show, but the action didn’t bear that out. Faustus manifested some grapes, which the Duchess grabbed and ate greedily, and then they took Faustus off for his reward.

Another brief appearance by Wagner was followed by the black spirits wanting Faustus to show them Helen of Troy. This was done by having the spirits kneel at the front of the stage, and showing a close-up image on the left side of the back wall. Frankly, it was a serious disappointment – it was such an extreme close-up that we couldn’t see her full face, but if you’re into left nostrils, she was a peach! But that didn’t stop the black spirits declaring themselves satisfied. Despite their hellish nature, they went off asserting that Faustus would be happy and blessed evermore – really? Had no one told them that Faustus had sold his soul to the devil? Or were they just not paying attention? (Steve reckoned they might have been Faustus’ friends and/or students at this point, which would make more sense, but as they didn’t look any different to the black spirits – still in suits – that was another flaw in the production for me.)

Wagner had another argument with Faustus, and while he made some good points, Faustus wasn’t interested. The good and bad angels came on again: Faustus’ time was nearly up – I felt like cheering! Mind you, if that was all he got in return for his soul, then he gave it up way too cheap. He did try to repent, which upset Mephistopheles, but then Faustus cut his arm again – I really do not remember why, if I even knew – and asked to see the real Helen of Troy.

Strange as most of the performance had been, this bit was even weirder, and certainly darker. A young girl came on, about twelve years old perhaps. Faustus walked slowly towards her while Mephistopheles was speaking, and then Helen ran over and pushed Faustus away. Then she leapt up onto him and he held her in his arms. There was a long period of music and slow movements until he put his hand on her head and she moved it around, and then she ran around him several times, and by this time I was almost giving up the will to live.

More music, more choreography which meant absolutely nothing to me, and then Faustus fell to the floor, twitching. He got up again and did some more spinning and running around. Helen joined Mephistopheles, who stood up, and all the time Faustus was running around – if this was his death throes, then Pyramus did it a lot quicker! Mephistopheles walked off, with Helen joining him. Faustus kept running, the music droned on and then it suddenly stopped – relief!

But that wasn’t the end of the performance. If you could wear out a clock face by looking at it, I would need a new watch. The black spirits came on and questioned Faustus, while Mephistopheles came on wiping his hands – and what had he been up to? Restraining myself admirably from yelling “get a move on”, I watched with increasing impatience as the spirits said their goodbyes to Faustus, leaving him alone on stage for some more ranting. I had completely lost interest by now – my only thought was whether the experience rating would sink as low as 2/10.

There was more chiming of bells, Mephistopheles came back on and Faustus shut up. Thank God. Mephistopheles got the box cutter and handed it to Faustus, and then kissed him. Faustus tried to stab Mephistopheles but received the wound himself, with Mephistopheles putting his hand on Faustus’ heart. Mephistopheles walked off, Faustus died, and the lights went out. Our agony was over.

Many people applauded heartily, so presumably they enjoyed it. I did a few fake applause motions for the sake of Oliver and Sandy, but not for long, and although Steve did applaud, it was merely for politeness’ sake. Even though I like getting my feelings on paper for productions we haven’t liked very much – blog therapy – I found these notes almost as tedious to write as the performance was to watch, so although I will repeat that the actors bear no part of the blame, I think it unlikely that we will be attending another one of these performances. The style of performance was incredibly dull, the contribution by Christopher Marlowe was minimal, and often unintelligible, and I won’t be buying a CD of the music anytime soon. We can only hope that the other Swan offerings this year are more to our liking.

© 2016 Sheila Evans at


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