Review 1.


Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe at The Barbican Theatre

Directed by Maria Arberg for The RSC

Main cast: Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan, both Dr. Faustus and Mephistophilis interchangeably.


SIS: So I Saw… Maria Arberg’s Dr. Faustus

In 1620 John Melton wrote,

to see the Tragedy of Doctor Faustus: There indeed a man may behold shaggy-haired devils run-roaring over the stage with squibs in their mouths, while Drummers make thunder in the tiring-house, and the twelve-penny Hirelings make artificial lightning in the Heavens.’ [1]

Maria Arberg’s 2016 production retains this sense of raucous transgression, but in a modern context. She trades ‘shaggy-haired devils run-roaring over the stage with squibs in their mouths’ for bowler-hatted Clockwork Orange folk who dance about the stage with walking sticks in their hands; ‘Drummers’ are exchanged for eery synthesised lilts and the 170-zuleika-henry-rsc-dr-fautus-2016largeoccasional cabaret-style song; the only ‘artificial lighting in the Heavens’ are fluorescent bar-lamps that gradually colonise the stage and start to flicker out – measuring Faustus’ approaching doom. For Faustus has signed over his soul to the Devil, in exchange for the service of Mephistophiles (Satan’s demi-devil) whose essentially unlimited magic he uses to obtain wealth, power, fame and knowledge beyond the realms of human thought. After twenty-four years Faustus’ soul will be turned over to Satan, and condemned to hell. This is self-inflicted, something that Arberg chooses to reflect in the graphic act of Faustus’ slitting his wrists (brandishing them towards the audience) for the blood he must use to sign away his soul to Satan. However this act is also reflective of Arberg’s choosing to dwell less upon the theological concerns Faustus’ story raises, instead favouring a far more psychological emphasis.

This is even more apparent when the clinical atmosphere of the initial setting is considered. A huge cellophane screen bisects the front of the stage from the back and brown cardboard boxes are piled haphazardly about. It looks like an office – or a badly organised lab; calling to mind the fact that we live in an increasingly atheistic age, with a study in 2015 reporting that 48.5% of the UK’s population identify as ‘having no religion’ [2]. It certainly eschews any sense of religiosity or mysticism – which seems odd for a play whose plot follows the moral dilemma of an academic who signs his soul away to the Devil. Further, the drama of the actual moment of his signing his soul away is somewhat predicated on the potentiality that Faustus will actually summon the devil, as he chants strange incantations and paints a pentagram on the stage. When originally performed, in the age of King James VI, who famously wrote Daemonology (a tract that essentially took out an official mandate against the reality of ‘necromancy’ and witchcraft), this gave rise to the famous rumour of there being

one devell too many’ [3]

amongst the players on stage…

In Aberg’s production Faustus pulls his books of theology, logic and necromancy from the boxes that strew the stage – rejecting theology and logic by symbolically slitting the plastic doctor-faustus-production-photos_-february-2016_2016_photo-by-helen-maybanks-_c_-rsc_183352-tmb-gal-670screen (with the same knife he later uses to cut his wrists), thrusting them through it and away from him. Then, just as he drew each of these books from one of the cardboard boxes, he opens another, rips his shirt off his back, proceeding to violently ball it up and plunge it into the box – which contains white paint. He then uses this to mop out a huge pentagram on the stage – each corner of the star being subtended by a cardboard box each of which he lights a fire in. The speed at which this occurs is astonishing, and the accuracy with which Faustus maps the pentagram makes it appear almost instinctive: like an expression of an already deranged mind. In this regard the cardboard boxes themselves seem to take on a symbolic role. Piled in a half-organised half-deranged manner, they appear to mirror Faustus’ psychological attitude, which is, right from the start, clearly one of nervous agitation. Arberg’s Faustus is certainly not one that relies on ethical questions in a theological context – but rather calls on a sort of 21st-century demon: the mind.

As Faustus chants his voice is amplified through the Barbican’s surround-sound stereo-system, totally immersing the audience; making them one. But then we realise that we’re not alone – as Faustus’ voice is in stereo, or rather being echoed by Mephistophiles, which is gradually revealed by the increasing delay between their voices. This equivalence between Faustus and Mephistoophiles reveals another aspect of Arberg’s vision, that (as she states in her recent interview with the Gaurdian) ‘Mephistophilis is Faustus’s own particular demon rather than one that exists independently of his imagination’ [4]. Throughout the production this equivalence is alluded to. Most boldly in the opening scene, where Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan (it is as yet unclear who will play 4777Mephistophiles or Faustus) wear matching suits, mirror each others’ movements, simultaneously strike a match and watch them until they burn out (the one whose match extinguishes first plays Faustus – I got Ryan), but this is also subtly reflected (perhaps most subtly) in the mime face paint worn by all of the people and demons Faustus encounters via Mephistophiles.

The latter of these is also representative of Arberg’s constant use of a self-consciously theatrical aesthetic; the most prominent (and fun) example of this being her re-interpretation of the mini-morality play contained within Faustus, where Satan parades the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ personified. She chooses to play Satan as a sort of circus ringmaster, shepherding the ‘Sins’ who loll about the stage (and lewdly gyrate in the case of Lust) and proceed to present themselves in a cabaret-like fashion. They also sang, in a grimy fashion – and sometimes a little too repetitively to still be tempting. However the dance elements of the production were far more effective at conjuring emotion. When Faustus asks Mephistophiles to conjure Helen of Troy for him, whom he idealises in perhaps the most famous speech in the entire play –

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships…

– Arberg chooses to figure their meeting in modern dance, giving the speech to Mephistophiles instead.

Helen appears as a very slight and almost child-like figure, who seems to oscillate between aggressively reacting to Faustus’ advances in a defensive manner and moving as if being moved – like a puppet. This is a little disturbing, but also moving – as sometimes Faustus seems just as frightened of Helen as she does of him. It is very easy to read this as in some sense channeling questions raised by the revelations of Operation Yewtree, and the debate surrounding the treatment of paedophiles – especially as, in the scientific community, it is increasingly regarded as a psychological disorder as opposed to a conscious choice [5]. There is something of this debate in the eyes of Arberg’s Faustus, as he looks at Helen – both fascinated by her and simultaneously frightened by his own fascination; as if he is not in control of himself – as if he is possessed by a kind of internal demon, invisible to the audience: the mind?doctor_faustus_production_photos_february_2016_2016_photo_by_helen_maybanks_c_rsc_183373-tmb-gal-670

In 2002, spurred by Jude Law’s portrayal of Dr. Faustus in the same year, Michael Billington claimed that ‘the ultimate fascination of Marlowe’s Faustus is that the play acquires a different meaning for each age and a new generation’ [6]. Arberg’s 2016 production, in my view, admirably fulfils this. It is no secret that more and more issues of mental health are no longer being kept secret; just last week Cara Delavigne [7] joined the ranks of celebrities opening up about their own mental health problems. This, coupled with the rising numbers of people suffering from mental health related issues, has made it something that can no longer be ignored – and that must be dealt with. The big question is how? It is this demon that Arberg manages to represent – giving her Faustus a ‘meaning for […] a new generation’: this one.


More information about the production can be found at:


by Emily Swettenham

9th October 2016.



[1] Melton, J. 1620. Astrologaster, or the Figure-Caster. [online]. Available at: p.g.31. [Accessed: 16th October 2016].

[2] Sommers, J. 2016. ‘Christians Outnumbered by Atheists in England and Wales, Religious Identity Report Reveals’. The Huffington Post. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 16th October 2016].

[3] Anon. contemporary comment discovered in the margins of an early 17th century manuscript copy of Dr. Faustus. In: Guinness, G. and Hurley, A. eds. 1986. Auctor Laudens: Essays on Play in Literature. [online]. Available at: p.g. 55. [Accessed: 16th October 2016].

[4] Arberg, M. In: Wiegand, G. 2016. ‘Your own personal demon: Maria Arberg on her Doctor Faustus double act’. The Guardian. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 16th October 2016].

[5] Dr. Cantor, J. 2015. In: ’Are paedophiles’ brains wired differently?’. The BBC News Magazine. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 16th October 2016].

[6]  Billington, M. 2002. The Guardian. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 16th October 2016].

[7] Brotherton, H. 2016. ‘20 celebrities speak honestly about their mental health battles’. Marie Claire. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 16th October 2016].