There’s a lot that’s commendable about Maria Aberg’s production of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.
It’s a brave piece of work: heavily redacted, and full of richly visual and imaginative reconstructions of Marlowe’s text. The design concepts and movement sequences convey the narrative in striking and diverse ways – and it’s great that the RSC are giving the green light to non-naturalistic, concept-based adaptations of classic texts like this.
It also has a clear through line: stating a case for the similarity in nature between Faustus and Mephistopheles, with the same two actors swapping roles (a decision that is made live on stage), as well as physically and temperamentally resembling one another.
And yet there’s a lot in this show that doesn’t hold together.
One problem (and I hate to say this – because usually the reverse is true…) is that it’s overburdened with design ideas – to the extent that they sometimes act as an impediment to the narrative. So, Valdes and Cornelius look like dusty old Marxists from the Frankfurt School; the seven deadly sins are reimagined as a kind of modern-day fetishist cabaret act; the scholars meanwhile look like city workers, but with faces painted like sinister clowns. It’s all very disparate – giving the narrative a kind of Alice and Wonderland feel, as if each different environment is estranged from the rest. Which is of course all well and good – but on the condition that there’s an internal logic tying everything together. I struggled to discern one here, and often felt like this maze of signs instead distracted from Faustus’s story. It all feels a bit placeless; different moods are established, but it lacks a single unifying atmosphere – which I think is important if we’re to follow Faustus on his journey.
Orlando Gough’s accompanying soundtrack doesn’t help: it’s weird, and kind of wonderful, with dark ambient noise overlaid by bizarre synth brass -like compositions. It sounds a bit like a meeting between a David Lynch soundtrack and a documentary about Vikings on the Discovery Channel. Again, I don’t have an issue with this (it’s oddness is totally apt) but there were times when its refusal to correspond with the stage action created problems. For instance, when Faustus is trying to invoke evil spirits, there’s a strong discordance between his frantic energy and Gough’s almost comic soundtrack. Again – an interesting touch in a way, but it just pulled away from the mood of the scene and from the build of the narrative.
I guess my main objection, then, was that the innovativeness of Aberg’s production sometimes seemed to get in the way of the narrative.
Otherwise, it showcases some solid work – notably Oliver Ryan and Sandy Grierson, whose performances are equally truthful and understated. Though this is offset by an ensemble who often go into overdrive: the movement work with the scholars and the seven deadly sins was a little bit musical theatre for my liking, and clashed with the tone set by Ryan and Grierson.
All in all, it’s a patchwork of a show. The individual components are often strong, and it has its moments of brilliance, but there’s just a lack of cohesion between constituent parts that sometimes leaves the production feeling oddly out of focus.