Theater Review: Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe, at the Royal Shakespeare Company

A funny thing happened the first time I had tickets to see Doctor Faustus. My partner and I were all set to go to the theater one Tuesday evening in February, and I went to get the tickets and noticed that they were for the night before. We weren’t able to get to see this show at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre for a while, since we moved a few weeks ago, but finally had a chance last week.

Doctor Faustus is often a long, tedious play. The language isn’t as interesting as Shakespeare, and the plot meanders. In this new production, directed by Maria Aberg, the play is fast. It zips by in about 1:45, with no intermission, which is an excellent length for a play. But that tempo comes with risks.

One of the interesting elements of this production is the casting of the two main characters. Sandy Gierson and Oliver Ryan walk on stage and each one lights a match. The one whose match burns out first plays Doctor Faustus; the other Mephistopheles. This suggests that the two characters are both part of a whole, and it would be interesting to be able to see both actors perform each of the roles.

Faustus match
(Photos by Helen Maybanks for the RSC.)

We got the chance to see Oliver Ryan (left in the photo above), who I recalled playing Jacques in As You Like It in 2013 (also directed by Aberg). His Faustus is manic, as if he’s on speed. His diction is fast, his movements often overexcited, especially in the first part of the play. Faustus leafs through all his books, looking for answers, and ends up drawing a white pentagram on the stage, and calling for the devil. During this long scene, Ryan acts as though he has little time, as though his life is a burning match about to extinguish itself.

Faustus pentagram

The seven deadly sins scene changes the tone a great deal. Each of the “sins” is portrayed by an actor in a sort of Rocky Horror Picture Show outfit, and their lines are over exaggerated. There is music and singing, a bit of dancing, and from that point on, with more actors in a number of scenes, the tone changes, being less about a single character’s mania, but more about the mania of the world.

Orlando Gough’s music is some of the best I’ve heard at an RSC production, but it was too loud. With Ryan speaking quickly, and Gierson somewhat softly, I often lost the thread. While the play was visually stunning, I had trouble keeping up with the plot because of this. During the Helen of Troy scene at the end, I could barely hear what Gierson was saying, and had no idea how this scene linked to the rest of the play.

On the smaller Swan Theatre stage, this Faustus seemed a bit cramped, but, in a way, perhaps that was the right fit. Everything was compressed, concentrated, in space and in time, giving the entire production a unique feel. I didn’t dislike the play, but I would have enjoyed it more if the music were toned down a bit, and if the actors – particularly Ryan – spoke a bit more slowly. Perhaps the desire to keep the play short led to a decision to have Faustus speak fast; if so, I would have appreciated another ten minutes to allow his words to be more understandable. I’m not alone in this feeling. The Birmingham Mail called it incomprehensible gabble, giving the play one star out of five, and other reviewers noted the same problem.

Faustus confetti

It was certainly an enjoyable evening. I very much appreciate Aberg’s approach to theater, and found her As You Like It – the first RSC production I saw, back in 2013 – to be magical. It seems that, after running several months, and reading the reviews, she should have slowed things down a bit, and perhaps toned down the music. In spite of these criticisms, I would recommend seeing this play. It’s innovative and very visual, and, if you’re familiar enough with the text to be able to compensate for words you miss due to speedy delivery, you might even understand everything that happens.

I took advantage of £15 tickets the RSC offered through its Twitter account, @TheRSC. If you use Twitter, keep an eye out in case they have lots of empty seats again and have another such offer. I might take them up on it if they do so again; in spite of my reservations, I’d be willing to see this play again, perhaps getting to see Sandy Gierson as Faustus.