I can quite understand the reluctance of Elizabethan audiences to feel comfortable sitting in a theatre while the star of the show conjures up the Devil. In a profession rife with superstition it pays to be on the side of the angels.
The Royal Shakespeare Company has made its own pact with Lucifer to come up with a spellbinding version of Christopher Marlowe’s satanic and deeply disturbing Doctor Faustus for its Swan Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon.
The play must have scared the pants off early 17th century audiences whose dabbling in, and terror of, the dark arts was part of every day life. And there are moments in Maria Aberg’s visceral adaptation which are decidedly unsettling.
Watching a quite demented Faustus paint a pentangle on the stage (using his shirt) and then uttering incantations to summon Beelzebub brought about a chill in the air and a feeling that we were about to witness something special.
Aberg has decided on using Chance to decide who shall play the drama’s chief protagonists, Faustus and his demonic manservant Mephistophilis. The play opens with two similar-looking men, bald heads and dressed in suits, coming on stage. They face each other, mirroring the other’s actions. Both bend down, pick up a box of Swan Vestas and strike a match. Whosoever’s match burns the shortest plays Faustus and the other his partner in sin.
Last night Oliver Ryan mesmerised with a very physical performance as the German academic who sells his soul to the Devil in return for 24 years of magic and necromancy.
Ryan’s feverish turn sees him throwing his body around the stage, his arms whirling above his head, like a man possessed and as though trying to shake off some invisible force. There are times when he speaks so fast and furiously that I wondered if he was speaking in tongues (granted, a bit of Latin is thrown into the dialogue).
For such a clever man Faustus is a fool. After exhausting his library of books on law, doctrine, medicine and religion he is persuaded that he must embrace the dark side. Taking up magic and siding with the Devil will give him untold power.
So, after the aforesaid spells, he manifests Mephistophilis (Sandy Grierson, bared chested in a white suit and looking rather like a Versace model) who tells the greedy and ambitious Faustus that he can have everything once he has signed a pact, in his own blood, to Lucifer.
Most of us could easily magic up a long list of extravagances if we were given the keys to supernatural power but he squanders his years and talents on frivolities.
Before you know it 24 years have swept by and the time has come to pay.
There are some tremendous set pieces in Doctor Faustus that are dazzling and wonderfully creative. The standout scene has to be the arrival of Lucifer (Eleanor Wyld looking like Joanna Lumley in a Purdey wig) who parades the physical embodiment of the Seven Deadly Sins in front of a stunned Faustus.
And what a grotesque bunch they are. Designer Naomi Dawson lets her imagination run wild with a surreal tableau of fetish, fancy-dressed freaks that look like they’ve just come from an underground Berlin sex club. Natey Jones’ Lechery was my sin of choice, a lascivious and provocative white-haired version of Eurovision’s bearded Conchita, though Rosa Robson’s Covetousness was pretty impressive on stilts.
Gabriel Fleary drew the short straw being cast as the repulsive Gluttony, a monstrous creation who seemingly shares the same fat-suit tailor as Theo Fraser Steele as a gross Duke and Amy Rockson as his gargantuan wife.
Faustus also conjures up an army of demonic scholars who torture on command, seemingly shake violently (in that way that only the possessed can), know a few steps on the dance floor and worship at the feet of their increasingly unstable master, the damned doctor.
Sandy Grierson is a little wasted. Mephistophilis spends a lot of time sitting, watching, and lurking in the shadows (although he does get a brief dance routine with the scary scholars) while the whirlwind that is Faustus dominates the production.
Doctor Faustus terrified when it was first performed and Aberg’s adaptation is equally beguiling. It certainly cast a spell on me.
Doctor Faustus runs in rep in the RSC’s Swan Theatre until August 4.
The Royal Shakespeare Company has made a pact with the Devil to come up with a mesmerising adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's satanic and deeply disturbing play, Doctor Faustus.