Doctor Faustus at the Barbican review: a lively, relevant morality tale

Melissa York
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Doctor Faustus

Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe certainly gave him a run for his money when it came to blood and gore. Even a modern audience can’t help but flinch when the titular doctor slices his arm open – three times no less – to make an unholy pact with the devil.

In fact, it’s these darker forays into the supernatural that are the highlight of this production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Haunting music formed from inhuman-sounding vowels and a starkly bare stage make Faustus’ summoning of the demon Mephistophilis bone-chilling to behold.

Before the play begins, the actors light a match, and the one whose match goes out first has “lost” and is condemned to play Faustus, while the other has “won” the role of the demon. This neat little trick demonstrates that they’re two sides of the same coin, the demon and his doctor, performing a philosophical dance on the origins of sin that does irreparable damage to both.

The tone is patchy in parts, with a tendency to slip into cheap cabaret; the bowler-hatted chorus look like Fosse rejects and the seven deadly sins are a crime against subtletly.

But the strength of the principal performances and a truly desolate ending make this production a lively, relevant morality tale.