My second Doctor Faustus of 2016, this time the RSC's take and some comparisons with Jamie Lloyd's version
Mephistopheles sits perched on his haunches, on a box like an bird or some cloven-hoofed half beast of the underworld. Soot blackened feet, white suit, no shirt he watches with just the merest hint of bemused satisfaction.
Hell is all around us he says mildly at one point but Dr Faustus's inability to grasp that is a constant source of gentle amusement shown by the slight curl of the corner of his mouth and merriment behind the eyes.
Mephistopheles, in this instance, is played by Sandy Grierson (last saw him playing Ariel brilliantly in The Tempest), Dr Faustus is played by Oliver Ryan. It's important to distinguish because it isn't always that way around. The two actors arrived on stage identically dressed and decide which role they will take by simultaneously lighting matches and seeing which finishes burning first.
It is a nice device and perhaps on the London leg of the run I'll see Sandy Grierson playing the manic, edge of madness Faustus or at least that is how Oliver Ryan plays him. During those moments when Faustus might regret his decision to sell his soul to Lucifer, his spells of indecision are almost desperate, frenzied but then this is a man who doesn't enjoy getting what he asks for that much. The extent of his fall into sin and depravity is laid bare in his scene with a girlish looking Helen of Troy. It's an uncomfortable moment.
By Jamie Lloyd's Faustus standards (currently playing in the West End) this is a traditional production, no reincarnation as a David Blain magician and wannabe rock star, contemporary language and references to Barack Obama and David Cameron. But director Maria Aberg's production is still contemporary with modern dress as the white suit implies. There are black uniforms with thick, red rubber gloves and the seven deadly sins are a dazzling collection of grotesques, like characters from a dark comic book, although I think Jamie Lloyd's Sloth wins that particular one on performance.
Lucifer is a sharp suit, sharp blond Bob and red-lipstick wearing (Emily Wyld) but Wagner stays male and doesn't feature so prominently as Lloyd's female version.
The good and bad angels appear on the balcony either side of the stage with mad back-combed hair and ghoulish make up. The back lighting makes the good angel's hair look like a ragged halo while the bad has his gelled into two horns. And yet despite the modern take there is something medieval in the look and tone of it all that is in keeping with story.
Mephistopheles subtle, almost constant mild bemusement makes him all the more chilling and Dr Faustus' fate inevitable - when he attempts to deviate from the plans or is tempted to repent Mephistopheles nudges him back onto the path with a quiet force. There are hints and signs of a more violent character if you look for them and one final act that leaves you in no doubt - it is preceded by a kiss which says it all.
This production feels more measured but no less entertaining than Jamie Lloyd's. It's a production to see for more of the plays nuances and probably in one scene does more to disturb than Jamie Lloyd's entire play does. I'm giving it four stars.
Doctor Faustus is on in rep at the Swan Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon until 4 August, 2016 and then at the Barbican, London from September 7 until 1 October, 2016. It is one hour 5o minutes without an interval.