Review 9.


The Tempest at the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon

Directed by Gregory Doran for the RSC in collaboration with Intel in association with The Imaginarium Studios

Main Cast: Simon Russell Beale, Prospero (the right Duke of Milan); Jenny Rainsford, Miranda (Prospero’s daughter); Mark Quartley, Ariel; Joe Dixon, Caliban; Daniel Easton, Ferdinand (son of Alonso, the King of Milan); James Tucker, Alonso; Tom Turner, Sebastian (Duke of Milan, Prospero’s brother); Oscar Pearce, Antonio; Joseph Mydell, Gonzalo; Tony Jayawardena, Stephano; Simon Trinder, Trinculo.


Over twenty years ago, in Sam Mendes’ 1993-4 production, Simon Russell Beale played a deeply untraditional Ariel: one that, unlike the tradition of Ariels before him, was austere and intensely disdainful of his master, Prospero. Most notably, at the close of the play when Prospero affectionately grants Ariel his freedom –

‘My Ariel, chick’

[…] Be free, and fare thou well!’

– Beale drew an ‘audible gasp from the audience’[1], when he spat in the face of his ex-master (perhaps implying freedom is a right, not a gift). Now, this shocking Ariel has succeeded in conquering his master – literally: for Beale returns to The Tempest as Prospero, and in a production (directed by Gregory Doran) that is both unconventional and breathtaking, although in a rather different vein. This Tempest is brought to us in thp_mdg_181116shakespeare-_01jpgcollaboration with tech-giant Intel (in association with Imaginarium Studios), and employs some of the most advanced technology ever seen in theatre. This is perhaps appropriate for a play that was written in the early Jacobean period, when the theatrical vogue was the masque; elaborate and often extravagant performances that incorporated music and dance alongside drama delivered by masked actors[2]. Indeed, The Tempest itself contains a masque (the ‘vanity of mine art’ that Prospero conjures to celebrate the nuptials of his daughter, Miranda, and Alonso, the King of Milan’s son, Ferdinand) and seems to have been written with some intent to exploit the technical innovations that the masque form brought with it. Not least because originally it was to be performed at the Blackfriars (a small, intimate and enclosed theatre, unlike the open-air Globe – better equipped to support the mechanical requirements of masques). But more importantly the centrality of magic to the plot, (for example in the tempest Prospero generates that opens the play, bringing the play its cast of castaways, which makes all of the goings-on that follow possible) would have given more opportunities to employ the theatrical machinery of masques in new, and more serious ways.

In 2017, Doran looks back to this tradition of extravagance just as he aims to look forward into the possibilities of combining theatre and technology in a computer age. We see this from the very first scene. The Tempest opens with just that: a tempest – a storm magically conjured by Prospero to capture a ship carrying Alonso, the King of Naples, who is returning from the marriage of his daughter, Claribel, to the Prince of Tunis. But it isn’t just the King that Prospero is after. He also wants to get his hands on his own brother and now Duke of Milan, Sebastian, who conspired with Alonso to usurp him (the right Duke of Milan) – succeeding in having both himself and Miranda (his daughter) kidnapped and set adrift at sea to die. As lights flash and bend across the stage floor (giving the illusion of a rocking motion as if the stage – itself contained by the skeleton of a ship that appears to have been modelled on the remains of the Mary Rose – is being tempest-tossed) a spiral of what looks like fabric above – reminiscent of the eye of a hurricane – extends itself downwards. And, as it does, an image appears upon it – illuminated in brilliantly bright blues and greens. The silhouette of a man, sinks down its length – as if he is being rexfeatures_7440787kinexorably pulled down by his back, drowning, towards the stage floor. Prospero looks on. Although we will later discover that no one really drowned, it is this frightening image that introduces us to the magnitude of Prospero’s ‘art’: beautiful, astonishing, but simultaneously terrible – all of which he recognises and understands.

It is significant that he is seen to recognise all of the potential aspects of his magic, because it makes him morally culpable for choosing to use it to create fear. The first time we see Prospero call upon Ariel – who appears in the form of a CGI avatar, projected onto the same fabric-pillar as was used in the initial tempest, and moving in sync with the live movements of the physical embodiment of Ariel, Mark Quartley – he asks (responding to Ariel’s prompting the question of his freedom),

‘Dost thou forget

From what a torment I did free thee?’

the-tempest-production-photos_-2016_-press-call_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207545-tmb-gal-670and proceeds to

‘recount what thou hast been,

Which thou forget’st’, 

reminding Ariel of the

‘foul witch Sycorax’

(the previous ‘ruler’ of the island who died before Prospero arrived, but leaving her son, Caliban, who, like Ariel, Prospero ‘keep[s] in service’) and her treatment of him – trapping him

‘into a cloven pine; within which rift

Imprison’d thou didst painfully remain

A dozen years […]

thy groans

Did make wolves howl and penetrate the breasts

Of ever angry bears: it was a torment

To lay upon the damn’d’


‘I arrived and heard thee, […]

and let thee out.’

This speech dominates this interaction between the pair. Ariel’s lines are clipped (often less than five words) and deferential (consistently referring to Prospero as ‘sir’) – whereas Prospero’s are full of visceral imagery of pain and torment that can be interpreted as either a statement of his moral superiority and benevolence (imposing justice after Sycorax’s wrongs, and thus making him the rightful inheritor of the island) or as simplythe_tempest_production_photos_2016_press_call_2016_photo_by_topher_mcgrillis_c_rsc_207566.tmb-img-820.jpg an exercise in rhetoric – justifying his unsound claim to Ariel’s loyalty (is Prospero’s taking him into his ‘service’ in some sense equivalent to Sycorax’s ‘imprison[ing]’ a ‘spirit’ like Ariel into a ‘cloven pine’?). Doran employs special effects to explore this – hinting at the latter. For as Prospero delivers this speech, the spiral of fabric (that the figure of the man ‘drowned’ down) descends around Ariel – encircling him like the trunk of the ‘cloven pine’. And with each bitterly delivered descriptor Prospero gives of Ariel’s imprisonment, a new projection is cast across the stage, transfiguring it into a net of roots, and directly onto Ariel, appearing to transform him into wood. The effect is truly astonishing – and totally absorbing, especially with the accompanying audio of wood creaking (seeming to echo Ariel’s physically appearing to break under the force of Prospero’s magic) that sounds like bones cracking – or whips. Instead of undermining the power of the characters’ words, the special effects draw out their moral complexities and ambiguities – bringing them into sharper relief.

The wedding masque Prospero puts on for Miranda and Ferdinand later on is similarly astonishing – but to a slightly different end. For it demonstrates the potential for Prospero’s art to create joy and beauty, in celebration of potential growth and fertility (an inversion of the projections that grew around Ariel, seeming to turn him back ‘into a cloven pine’, crushing him right before our eyes). Previous productions have down-played the masque, using it as a meta-theatrical device (drawing to the audience’s attention that they are watching something that is not real) to highlight Prospero’s inadequacies: for example in Mendes’ production, where Alec McOwen’s kindly and eccentric Prospero conjured the masque on a tiny stage on stage (similar to the play within the play in Hamlet), with the actresses playing the goddesses Iris, Ceres, and Juno moving like wooden puppets – making him appear somewhat foolish, like a ‘conjuror who’d go down well at a children’s party’[3]. Doran does precisely the opposite. The goddesses of his masque are less easily dismissed as some ‘vanity’ of Prospero’s art – they appear as almost real, but perhaps not really gods as the glowing fibre-optic threads draped about their dresses are not enough to confirm them as otherworldly beings – they clash too much with the Screen Shot 2017-01-31 at 15.43.27.pngdresses organic looking fabric and tudor silhouettes. Further the setting for the masque is totally immersive; indeed the feathers of the peacocks that

‘fly amain’

with the entrance of Ceres are stunningly projected across the entirety of the stage – as are David Hockney-esque images of

‘rich leas

Of wheat, rye, barley, vetches, oats and pease;

[…] turfy mountains, where live nibbling sheep,

And flat meads thatch’d with stover.’

But poking in from all sides on this fantastic scene are the charry-black bones of the boat that encloses the stage – stopping us from fully losing ourselves in the pageantry. The emotional complexity of the characters sitting on the edge of the stage, facing away from us – watching the masque with us (Prospero, Miranda and Ferdinand) is constantly present.

The ship’s skeleton serves as a symbolic reminder, not only of the wreck Prospero orchestrated in the opening scene (that causes Ferdinand to believe his father drowned), but also of the wreck that brought himself and Miranda to the island in the first place. This especially bears on how we interpret Miranda and Prospero’s relationship. The masque, with its semantic field of chastity and control –

the-tempest-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207292-tmb-gal-670‘this man and maid,

Whose vows are, that no bed-right shall be paid

Till Hymen’s torch be lighted’

– might be interpreted as indicative of Prospero’s authoritarianism, or of his viewing Miranda as merely a piece of his grand plan to secure revenge on his brother (or to teach him the error of his ways). These interpretations, on the surface, might seem to be suggested in this production; every Prospero halts the masque, claiming that he has suddenly remembered that he must stop

‘that foul conspiracy

Of the beast Caliban and his confederates

Against my life’,

(Caliban’s ‘confederates’ being the drunken butler Stephano, and the – also drunk – Fool, Trinculo – together they stage a rebellion against Prospero). But this line is delivered by Beale as he leaps forwards to halt the kiss Miranda and Ferdinand are about to share – which seemingly confirms his valuing Miranda only in the light of his personal machinations (heirs produced by Miranda must be legitimate beyond question: preferably born when the marriage has been recognised by more than just those watching the masque!). However things aren’t quite as clear cut as this: Beale’s Prospero is more complex, and human. Central to this is his love for his daughter. As he watches the masque Prospero cradles Miranda, hugging her with a true emotional attachment (which she reciprocates). Throughout the play Beale’s Prospero reinforces the sense of his affection for Miranda, with repeated moments of physical tenderness that are intensely human: she is not an object, rather he values her emotionally.

This is made apparent from the very first interaction between them that we witness. Miranda sees the tempest Prospero conjures, and feels for the plight of those on board (symbolically intensified by her wet hair and lurching gait; she herself looks like she could have been recently shipwrecked) – believing them to be drowned – begging her father to stop what he’s doing:the-tempest-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207130-tmb-gal-670

‘If by your art, my dearest father, you have

Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.

[…] O, I have suffered

With those that I saw suffer.’

Prospero’s following verbal responses are full of pleas for ‘obedience’, and he appears to try to silence Miranda by repeatedly asking that she listen (‘dost thou attend me?’, ‘thou dost not’); further his decision to reveal to Miranda

‘How thou camest here’

might be seen as a means of displacing her concern – or even disregarding it. However, Beale’s Prospero defies such an interpretation. His reaction to Miranda’s horror and suffering ‘with those that I saw suffer’ is to clutch at his heart – as if he feels a real physical pain, promthe-tempest-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207192-tmb-gal-670pted by that which he has caused in her. Just as he clearly cares about her emotional state, he also appears to value her perspective (although he may not actually act on her advice, he respects her point of view – he is not simply dismissive of it) – and enjoys her inquisitiveness, despite the fact that her questions interrupt him. But perhaps most importantly he seems to need Miranda to sustain him emotionally. As he tells her of his mental anguish when adrift at sea, he kneels to her, clasping her hands, gazing up into her face – suppliant-like – and tells her, with deep tenderness

‘Thou wast that did preserve me. Thou didst smile.

emphasised by Beale’s particular stress on the second clause, as she responds (visibly moved by his affection) with exactly that – a smile. Their relationship seems a close one of respect and mutual emotional support. Hence his telling her the longwinded tale of ‘how thou camest here’ comes across as his making amends to her – giving her an explanation he owes her, as opposed to an attempt to distract her from her ethical concerns to those of personal origin. Further the repeated ‘dost thou attend me?’ (which might also come across as Prospero taking the moral high ground as much at silencing her) here appears symptomatic of anxiety on Prospero’s part.

the-tempest-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207141-tmb-gal-670For Beale’s Prospero is vulnerable; less of a self-convinced patriarch, he seems self-conscious and self-doubting. This is reflected in his simple clothing: he wears loose-fitting cheesecloth top and trousers – no grand magician, despite the huge power we know he wields. His gait is nervous: he rarely stays still, and agitatedly grinds his hands into his pockets. Several possible explanations for his being in such a state are suggested to us. But first and foremost are his feelings towards his past: for he cannot seem to be able to understand where the aggressive ambition of his brother came from (he thought he knew his brother well) and further how he could act upon this ambition as he did – attempting not only to unseat his Prospero, but to kill him and his daughter. This is made clear when Prospero is telling Miranda ‘how thou camest here’. Beale delivers a sharp mix of confused rage, hurt, and worry as he tries to verbally reconcile how, in his brother

‘Awaked an evil nature and my trust,

Like a good parent, did beget of him

A falsehood in its contrary as great

As my trust was.’

However, because Beale’s Prospero is less than self-assured there is scope allowed for us to understand why his brother may have acted as he did. Prospero is flawed – and even he seems aware of this, especially when it comes to his choice, when still in Milan, to

‘the government [the duties of the Duke of Milan] cast upon my brother’

whilst he allowed himself to become

‘rapt in secret studies’.

All of this is symbolically bound together in the appearance of his magic staff – which looks like a piece of driftwood; suggestive of fragility and imperfection, emphasising Prospero’s humanity as opposed to someone who is pushing the bounds of human understanding with his ‘art’.

the-tempest-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207132-tmb-gal-670Moreover this drift-wood staff also associates Prospero’s ‘art’ with the shell of the wrecked ship that encloses the stage (and all of his conjurings) – and thereby the mental tempest caused by his and Miranda’s shipwrecking. The ship’s ribs seem reminiscent of a whale’s (indeed the production’s use of special effects was greatly ‘inspired’[4] by Intel’s Leviathan[5], a CGI whale projected onto a screen that then literally swims out of it) calling to mind the many ‘monster[s] of the deep’[6] that feature in the Bible – particularly at times of human suffering, for example in Job. In his misery (a diligently pious man, Job’s faith is tested by God who gives Satan ‘power’[7] over ‘all that he hath’[8] – ‘only upon himself put not forth thine hand’[9]), having lost his family, home, wealth, and suffering numerous other hardships besides, Job protests, asking ‘Am I a sea, or a whale, that thou settest a watch over me?’[10], drawing on the image of the universe as chaotic waters (as in Genesis 1: ‘darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’[11]) that God imposes order upon. In Job, it might be argued that his grief, his utter misery and despair at the apparent futility of life (‘my soul chooseth strangling, and death rather than my life’[12]), is of a degree that is as desperately chaotic as ‘a sea, or a whale’, or ‘the deep’ God must restrain to keep order in the universe: Beale’s Prospero channels something of this energy, in his anxiety, self-doubt – but most importantly, in his sudden rages, that seem borne of a chaotic, tempestuous mind, that has suffered and needs to right his feelings of being wronged. Like Job finds himself incapable of ‘refrain[ing his] mouth’[13] from ‘speak[ing] in the anguish of [his] spirit’[14], this Prospero in some sense must attempt to orchestrate his own poetic justice – to reinstate order in a world that he may find, ultimately, to be fathomless.

This is, perhaps, the central conflict of Beale’s Prospero, and potentially what gives him such a strong air of ambivalence – because the means of his remedying sense of injustice (his elaborate plot, starting with the tempest bringing his ‘enemies’ under his influence, and ending with his revealing himself to his brother – and outdoing him in his marrying Miranda off to the King, Alonso’s son, Ferdinand) come with the potential price of harming the very thing that ‘wast that did preserve [him]’: Miranda’s happiness – her ‘smile’. Just before the masque, Ferdinand (Daniel Easton’s is a combination of cavalier and naive teenage romantic) claims,

‘The white cold virgin snow upon my heart

Abates the ardour of my liver.’

This is addressed to Prospero – who grimaces bitterly in response. Little does Ferdinand know that Prospero was watching when he told Miranda

‘Full many a lady

I have eyed with best regard and many a time

The harmony of their tongues hath into bondage

Brought my too diligent ear’,

(the vivid sensory and sensual imagery, a stark contrast to the supposed ‘white cold virgin snow’) continuing to explain that she is unlike all the rest. Indeed during the actual solemnising of his and Miranda’s nuptials during the masque he doesn’t look at her – instead he gawps at the glorious sights about him (including the goddesses; the first time Screen Shot 2017-01-31 at 23.59.23.pnghe addressed Miranda he referred to her as a ‘goddess’). Whilst Miranda is set on marrying Ferdinand, the possibility that he may not live up to her expectations seems to bother Prospero (the masque itself seems to be a sort of utopian vision of the world he wishes he could give to her) – but not enough to change his plans. Maybe he thinks that, in time, he will be able to correct Ferdinand? His teacherly manner towards him – setting the lovers-test of piling up a ‘some thousand’ logs (which this Ferdinand does with much comic huffing and puffing – and help from Miranda, who is much more able than he) – might suggest as much. However, whether we think Prospero will manage this, or that his judgement is in any way sound is very much open to question.

This is where the extraordinary special effects really come into their own – and prove themselves to be a means of enhancing our view of the characters on stage, as opposed to ‘upstaging the actors’[15], as some have suggested. When Prospero halts the masque to direct his attentions to stopping the ‘foul conspiracy of […] Caliban and his confederates’ he chooses to set a trap for them.

‘the trumpery in my house, go bring it hither’,

hanging the garments out on a line – to hook the greedy eyes of (the hilarious Tony Jayawardena and Simon Trinder) Stephano and Trinculo (Caliban, it transpires, is not interested in this gorgeous apparel; he is, instead, far more focussed on the task in hand – attempting to overthrow Prospero). Then, as if to teach them an object-lesson about the evils of greed, vanity, and ambition, frightening them as punishment – sending Ariel’s Screen Shot 2017-02-01 at 00.00.40.pngband of spirits in the form of dogs to hunt them. Rendered with the special effects, the result is truly terrifying. The faces of three dogs (like Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the underworld owned by Hades), glowing a shockingly bright red (that is so bright it almost makes our eyes burn – as if Prospero is somehow indirectly, even inadvertently, punishing us), growling and barking through gaping jaws, are projected onto the back of the stage – whilst, in the foreground, spirits (clad in white morphsuits) holding white discs onto which more dog faces are projected. They chase the ‘confederates’ about the stage – who shriek and scream as Prospero condones their (and ours, as we blink at the red light and wince at the harsh too-loud sounds of the dogs) suffering:

‘Let them be hunted soundly.’

The sheer magnitude of this (enabled by the special effects) doesn’t just emphasise Prospero’s moral culpability for causing such suffering (even if it is to teach a lesson) but it also suggests that he is less capable of comprehending the outcomes of his actions than we might have supposed at the play’s beginning, when we saw him watching his conjured tempest. This punishment seems excessive – and what’s more, in its extremity, disconcertingly uncontrolled. Even wilfully so.

This sense of Prospero’s being less than in control comes to a head in the closing reconciliation scene. Before this he had Ariel enchant Alonso, his brother Stephano and their attendants, including Gonzalo (whom Prospero considers ‘A noble Neapolitan […] out of his charity’) – luring them with a banquet (mirroring the trap set for Caliban and his ‘confederates’) and then frightening them in the form of a harpy (another live CGI avatar) tempest-gramafilm-3048-e1480372282729– informing them that they are to be punished for the wrong they did to Prospero and then setting three anonymous spirit-swordsmen to fight with Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio (whom Sebastian tried to tempt into killing Alonso). This is all to teach them a lesson – to achieve his poetic justice. He sets the scene for this – placing himself in the centre of the circle of fire (rendered via projection) that he draws on the ground with his staff,  as he simultaneously draws the enchanted Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio (whose clothes are tattered and bloodied) about its circumference; Gonzalo, who is still neatly dressed, is also drawn in. Prospero’s intel-the-tempest-6moment has come. Before he breaks the spell he goes up to each and professes to forgive them; he then costumes himself in a military jacket (like those worn by the King and the rest of his party) and breaks the spell. He stands, awaiting their reactions, happily holding his arms out – as if to say ‘Tah-Dah!’ Standing as he is in the middle of the circle he seems hunted – even a little foolish. No one reacts – and then, when they do, it’s not to tell Prospero that they repent. It seems that Prospero has grossly misjudged his audience. Even Gonzalo, whom Prospero thought so ‘noble’ and ‘charitable’ receives him with a guarded look: brilliantly delivered by Joseph Mydell – who balances a veneer of benignity with hawkish self-interest. Stephano barely speaks; he barely moves – remaining icily still as his brother embraces him. The only one of these men who truly appears to believe Prospero’s claims is Alonso, who is himself on the brink of madness because of what he has suffered at the hands of Prospero (Alonso also believes his son to be dead). As Alonso embraces Prospero it seems that the latter might be just as mad as the former.

Such a complex Prospero somewhat overshadows his reticent Ariel and the kindly but simple Caliban; although Joe Dixon’s Caliban is strangely complex in his simplicity insofar as he exemplifies an alien system of logic, challenging us to relate to him. A real ‘mooncalf’ Caliban appears physically and mentally like the kindly ogre of a children’s fairytale: essentially benign, meaning well, and yet still capable of accepting something terrible as rape (Caliban attempted to rape Miranda) to be logically consistent with this. But it is also Prospero’s complexity that makes the task he sets us, as he closes the play, so difficult:the-tempest-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207334-tmb-gal-670

‘As you from crimes would pardon’d be,

Let your indulgence set me free.’

I’m not sure we can. What made this viewer pity this Prospero was that just as he labours to enact his plans, conjuring illusions to facilitate the events of the play, he himself is equally labouring under an illusion: the idea that the individuals upon which he attempts to impose his plans will react in the way he intends them to. The bones of the ship still encircle the stage; Prospero is still a mental wreck of a man – and maybe there is more wreckage to come. His brother seems unrepentant (or even enraged to an even colder hatred of his brother), and even Miranda surprises him, showing herself to be, perhaps, just as impulsive in love as Ferdinand – kissing one of the other crew members, full on the mouth, uttering:

‘O brave new world!’

Prospero might be free – but in a way that depends on your answer to the question: what do you think happened to them on the way back to Milan, by sea?


More information about the production can be found at: 

You can also watch the trailer (the production is to be broadcast live in cinemas) at:


by Emily Swettenham

30th January 2017



[1] RSC Royal Shakespeare Company. 2017. Sam Mendes 1993 Production. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 21st January 2017].

[2] The Research Team, Shakespeare’s Globe. 2013. Masques in The Tempest. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 21st January 2017].

[3] Taylor, P. 1993. ‘THEATRE / Rough magic: Paul Taylor reviews Alec McCowen and Simon Russell Beale in a new Tempest in Stratford’. The Independent. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 21st January 2016].

[4] Ellis, S. for The Royal Shakespeare Company. 2017. ’O Brave New World: Sarah Ellis reveals how the RSC and Intel have merged art and technology to stage Shakespeare’s most magical play’. The Royal Shakespeare Company in collaboration with Intel: The Tempest. [production program]. p.g.2.

[5] Vera T. 2015. Leviathan at Intel CES 2014 Keynote. . Available at: [Accessed: 21st January 2017].

[6] The Bible. The Book of Job 7:12, New International Version. Hodder & Stoughton Publishers: London, UK. 2011. p.g.514.

[7] The Bible. The Book of Job 7:12, King James Version. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody Massechusetts. 2011. p.g.262.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The Bible. Genesis 1:2, King James Version. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody Massechusetts. 2011. p.g.1.

[12] The Bible. The Book of Job 7:15, King James Version. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody Massechusetts. 2011. p.g.262.

[13] The Bible. The Book of Job 7:11, King James Version. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody Massechusetts. 2011. p.g.262.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Cavendish, D. 2016. ‘The RSC’s Tempest: Lord of the Rings-style magic and the welcome return of Simon Russell Beale – review’. The telegraph. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 21st January 2017].

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].