I have to admit that it was only with the second viewing of this production that I grasped and enjoyed it. Perhaps it’s a disadvantage knowing the two versions of the text because director Maria Aberg has conflated them and then cut extensively to create a text which is significantly different from the two known ones. The combination of puzzling out the text and missing various bits that were cut distracted me.
Having made the decision to have two actors who both play Faustus and Mephistopheles suggests a similarity between them. This is established right at the start as the two actors (both in Mephistophilis costume) stand opposite each other and light a match each. The one whose match burns out first plays Faustus that evening. I spent far too much time thinking about the interchangeability of the two at a first viewing.
It transpires that Mephistophilis represents Faustus’s desires: what Faustus would love to be and do but dare not, so that when he has sold his soul Faustus can become that person. Quite straightforward and intelligible, really. But I got distracted by it the first time.
I have always found the comic scenes tiresome and so Aberg’s decision to cut many of them was welcome. The pantomimic Seven Deadly Sins produce an entertaining spectacle but I still can’t really get why Faustus should be so seduced by them. The Pope episode and that of the Duke of Anholt were also pantomimically presented. The audience laughed appropriately. I watched them and listened to them laugh. There could have been biting political, social and religious satire here but the dark edges of these scenes were not dark enough for me.
There are suggestions of the homoerotic in Faustus’s relationship with Mephistophilis, perhaps not surprising given that it is really a relationship between Faustus and a forbidden more exciting version of himself and the use of the Hebrew Kabala for the spells widens the dimension of the play’s exploration of the unknown.
Aberg’s idea that hell is the lack of faith (not religious faith but any kind of faith) is a splendid one, accounting for the reduction of the play’s overtly Christian content, so that bits of the Old Man and the Chorus are given to Wagner, though why the Scholars – and so many of them – should be dressed in Keystone Cops costumes eluded me.
Still, it’s a very interesting text and the decision to play it without an interval worked well, especially as it is cut to just under two hours playing time.
When we saw it first Oliver Ryan’s match went out first. I was not alone in finding his accent peculiar and Faustus’s early speeches were rather hard to hear and follow. Sandy Grierson’s Scottish Mephistophilis was much easier to hear and understand. Nicholas Lumley as Wagner spoke in standard English, perhaps drawing the audience’s identification towards him. There aren’t any other ‘characters’ in the play.
The music by Orlando Gough is wonderful. Naomi Dawson’s costumes are spectacular. Ayse Tashkiran’s movement plot is outstanding. The decision not to have scene changes but to place everything in Faustus’s transformed study makes clear that everything is going on in his head: a most interesting and, I thought, successful use of Beckett’s ideas.
The Helen of Troy scene also takes place in Faustus’s head. It is long, drawn out, intense and powerful, making considerable physical demands on both Faustus and Helen (Jade Croot).
The play ends with Faustus’s death. Not, I think, what Marlowe intended, but interesting. When Faustus is dead, of course, nothing can go on in his head, especially in a secular age. It’s pretty bleak, and all the better for that.