To see one misfiring Doctor Faustus in a year is a misfortune; to see a second production failing and flailing starts to look like carelessness. The one thing you can say for Maria Aberg's take on the play for the RSC is that it is at least offers a more coherently thought-through vision of the play than the West End version by director Jamie Lloyd that starred Kit Harington at the Duke of York's.
But her production is nonetheless full of its own tricks, albeit more slickly achieved than the star-driven West End one. In fact, the first trick is right at the opening and throws star casting out the window: two actors, identically dressed, face each other and both strike a match. Whichever goes out first determines who plays the title character and who his demonic alter ego Mephistophilis. (On press night, the doctor was played by the softly Scottish accented Sandy Grierson, with a tautly-muscled Oliver Ryan as Mephistophilis).
This is a lean, stripped-back version of the play -- it runs for just 1 hour 45 minutes without an interval -- but though it has brevity on its side, it also has its own excesses. Doctor Faustus is revealed early on to be a self-harming cutter -- he draws his own blood, literally, so he can sign his pact with it.
He's also a fan of chalk circles, determinedly marking out the stage in chalk, which at least breaks the monotony of another mostly bare stage that is otherwise only strewn with packing boxes and paper covered frames which gradually get broken through. It makes it feel like a studio production -- it had been launched in the RSC's Swan Theatre -- unduly amplified now to fill the much larger main house of the Barbican.
It might well have been more comfortably installed in the Barbican's studio Pit space. Grierson and Ryan bring a lot of commitment and intensity to the play, but they are surrounded by a busy company of often faceless actors (literally so, as their faces are hidden from view) that make this theological debate occasionally take flight.