Of course that's easier said than done and the dark poetry of entering into cahoots with the devil attracts radical reworkings and celebrity Fausts (as shown in Jamie Lloyd's rather lacklustre production with Kit Harington earlier this year).
Happily Maria Aberg's production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, now at the Barbican for the RSC's London Season, has all the requisite acting talent and wonder, with an enlightening balance of respect for Marlowe's verse and fresh aesthetic.
Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan share the roles of Faustus and Mephistophilis, alternating parts for different performances. It's an effective metaphor for the characters' duality and reliance upon each other. For press night it was a huskily Scottish Grierson as the Doctor and a fey yet fierce Ryan as Lucifer's servant. Both were impressive and distinctive, with mirrored choreography and an uneasy sense of intimacy complicating the sense of servitude.
The play begins with each lighting a match - the spark that ignites the tragedy. Faustus paces a black stage littered with boxes. A white chalk circle symbolises the incantations through which the Doctor summons up a servant of the devil. Then a pact, penned in Faustus's blood, promises 24 years of unparalleled power in exchange for his soul's eternal damnation.
From an initially contemporary, familiar set, designer Naomi Dawson conjures the undercurrents of dark magic with flashes fire, and white chalk smudges that soon soil the whole stage.
The manifestation of Faustus's hellish power is played out by a large cast in a series of monochrome, highly stylised costumes, with a shade of Bauhaus reflecting the story's German origins. The macabre elements of the play are presented with a kitsch playfulness, with live music and copious choreography adding to the atmosphere. Sometimes, as with the seven deadly sins scene the effect is decadent cabaret; towards the end it becomes more unsettling, as Faustus's eternity in hell approaches and a desperate encounter with Helen of Troy is played out through a strained contemporary ballet routine.
Occasionally the twitchy, thrusting presence of the large ensemble can be over the top with cartoonish horror, but ultimately the aesthetic illuminates the text without undermining the verse. Whether you're approaching Dr Faustus for the first time or have seen countless different productions, the RSC's take on the classic is well worth seeing.
|What||RSC's Dr Faustus at the Barbican review|
|Where||Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Barbican (underground)|
07 Sep 16 – 01 Oct 16, 7:00 PM – 8:45 PM
|Price||£10 - £55|
|Website||Click here to book via the Barbican|