Hell is human in the RSC’s Faustian nightmare.
The stage was a long way down from both salvation and my standing seat right up in the Gods of the Swan theatre. With matching shaved heads, Oliver Ryan and Sandy Grierson were perfect doppelgängers as they walked out on to all-black stage, casting themselves as either Faustus or Mephistopheles by each striking a match and seeing whose burned out quickest.
Ryan’s disillusioned Faustus was borderline manic and wound up from the word go. He immediately began to renounce his lifetime of learning, chucking boxes of books and papers about his bachelor flat and reeling off an internal spiel to the audience as if to justify himself.
Mephistopheles on the other hand was calm and measured, helped along by his lilting Embra accent. Half dishevelled, half swaggering and with deep, junkie shadows under his eyes, nothing about Faustus fazed him. It was as though he had been there himself and come out on the other side. You felt sorry for him, and he seemed to feel sorry for Faustus – not that it does either of them any good over in eternal damnation.
Faustus just about kept a lid on it while his colleagues dished out advice in the background of his racing thoughts, but you could tell his mind was made up. Charmed by peculiar glamour of Mephistopheles’, the audience was already teetering on the edge with him.
Faustus’ uncomfortableness with his lifetime of academia came out in a kind of heretical frustration; a cycle the he needed to break. Perhaps in the very physical way he conjured the spirits, painting out the magic circle on his knees and burning flames at each point or the star. There was something bracing and vital about it compared with the stagnant contents of his flatpack MDF bookshelves.
The devils and spirits that Faustus invites to take over his life came in the shape of his own paranoia and insecurities; their evil was not so much in their magic as in their torturous humanness. Faustus’ face first betrays a lick of fear as they tear their way up from the underworld, parasitic and conscienceless.
Lighting and costumes were used cleverly to take you inside Faustus’ delirious kind of hyper-reality. The world he and Mephistopheles made their playground was recognisable, though it was too vivid and too fast, like in a dream. You were able to sense that something was wrong, even when Faustus wasn’t prepared to.
His magic powers were less remarkable than the ugly traces they left behind – his new company invariably came with a parade uncomfortably twitching limbs, butchers gloves, grotesque bellies and pigs heads stuck on French Regency bodies.
Eyes were on stalks when the Seven Deadly Sins payed their visit, illuminated in a cheap fluorescent white light and holographic reflections. Covetousness on stilts, Lust in drag and inflatable sumo style Gluttony had much more staying power than any of their divine counterparts. The wooly angel on Faustus’ left shoulder didn’t stand a chance.
It is only when Helen of Troy arrived on the scene that we were given a compelling reason for redemption. Her face was briefly projected on the screen, beautiful and feminine and kind of like the music video for Chris Isaak Wicked Game. Her purity captured the attention of all creatures, earthly or otherwise, though she was probably the least human presence of them all.
When she arrived on the stage in person, she was small and childlike – frightened of Faustus. It was a powerful few moments when he slowly, painfully began to realise what this meant about what he had become.
His death came a lot more quietly than you might have expected; there was no begging. The end showed Faustus at his most controlled, as though in the last few seconds had he accepted what he had known it all along.