Thursday, 28 April 2016

No end is limited to damned souls…


Although I have previously done so twice… for some reason, yesterday, exiting the nestling Swan Theatre in daylight – after yet another bedevilling performance of Doctor Faustus – felt so very wrong: even with “the entrails of yon labouring clouds” parting, between “thunder, whirlwinds, storm, and lightning” (or so it seemed), to reveal that luciferous “empyreal orb”.

I am not completely sure why. All I know is that, even on a sixth viewing, this drama continues to grow on me; to grow in potency. That the dying moments of “Accursed Faustus” are so distressingly beautiful may explain much – if not all. Every aspect of the production, though, is thoroughly remarkable – especially in the way it insinuates its way into your deepest thoughts; and particularly in its continuous transformation with each repeated viewing: from disturbing to delightful; from callous to comforting; yet always with “more to admire and intrigue”. However, perhaps the play’s affect also stems from an unwillingness on my part to even anticipate uttering those distressing words: “Now, Faustus, farewell…” – knowing that I will never see the like again (after another two showings, that is) when, sadly, “belike the feast is ended” (as “good Wagner” says).

[I understand why productions in the Swan cannot currently be filmed; but I would readily “assure [my] soul to be great Lucifer’s” for a recording of this (but only if it contained both Oliver Ryan – who I saw today – and Sandy Grierson in the title part). “O, how this sight doth delight my soul!”]

Oliver Ryan (Doctor Faustus) and Sandy Grierson (Mephistophilis) – photo by Helen Maybanks/RSC

I am of the opinion that some of the production’s forcefulness, its vigour, stems from that cunning, providential interchange of the two principal rôles. Seeing Ryan as Faustus somehow reveals additional passion not only in his performance (although no-one could ever say “Look you” as intensely, as beautifully, as menacingly as he does…); but also that of Grierson.

And likewise with “Sweet Mephistophilis”. Grierson’s laconic (his rendering of “Ay, Faustus…” always amazes and salves) is the perfect foil to Ryan’s frenetic. Both are intelligent, ardently-considered inquisitions of the text – albeit with occasionally divergent, contradictory responses. Reflections and refractions magnify such contrasts: enhancing the clarity; intensifying the colour; throwing meaning into mordant relief.


One major divergence, this time around (adding yet another layer), resulted from me sitting in my favourite seat (in my favourite theatre, of course…) – A33 in Gallery One (opposite the captions). Peering downward, for the first time in this run – although not quite a God-like experience (yet not that far off) – heightened (sorry) the significance of the painted pentagram; and reinforced the effects not only of “the force of magic”, but of the resultant destruction, and its persistence, as the house lights rise.

[Should you not have seen this “Tragical History” yet – and should you manage to obtain tickets – I would make three recommendations. Firstly, try to see it more than once: if possible, on the same day (see next point). Secondly, pray to whichever god, fallen angel, malevolent spirit, talisman or idol you have faith in… that you experience both actors in the title rôle (which you will, should you attend a single day’s matinée and ensuing evening performance). And, finally, aim to sit in one of the galleries; or on the front row of the stalls. Only thus, I believe, can you be fully immersed in Maria Aberg’s wonderfully-skewed, insightful, tumultuous, spiralling, collapsing, engrossing worldview.]


One final factor – and which, in advance of this year’s Deaf Awareness Week (entitled ‘Common Purpose’), made a tremendous difference – was the captioning.

My congratulations, therefore – and a thousand thanks – to Janet Jackson, for managing to communicate such a complex play (textually, musically, and sonorously) with such great intelligence and skill. Despite my previous doubts – and despite my previous boastful claim to “already know huge chunks of the text by heart” – her understanding of (and fascination with) the source shone through: illuminating aspects I had not espied before. I am therefore very much looking forward to her return – and my final visit – “O my God, I would weep! but the devil draws in my tears” – on 28 July 2016; just before the run ends on 4 August 2016. (The play then transfers – as I am sure you will be delighted to know – to the Barbican: from 7 September to 1 October 2016.)

But let my soul mount and ascend to heaven!
O, half the hour is past! ’twill all be past anon.
O, if my soul must suffer for my sin,
Impose some end to my incessant pain;
Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years,
A hundred thousand, and at last be sav’d!

From my perspective, she (and those who helped her prepare: including deputy stage manager, Lorna Earl; and music director, Jonathan Williams) therefore deserves as much applause, and as many cheers, as the rest of the performers and creatives. [She was also responsible for The Two Gentlemen of Verona – my first real experience of captions at the RSC – and, more recently, Don Quixote, amongst others… – and I therefore owe her a huge heap of gratitude for all her hard work (“hard” in both effort and difficulty – although I can only begin to imagine the huge amounts of concentration required).] Bravo!


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