My debut with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1974 was courtesy of John Barton, the ex-don who forsook academia for the professional theatre, though not before he had directed me in a couple of plays as an undergraduate at Cambridge 15 years previously. John's understanding of how to stage Elizabethan drama was unrivalled, even by Peter Hall, the friend who brought him to Stratford-upon-Avon where he reigned for two decades as eminence grise. He knows so much about blank verse, the way it works and should be spoken, that he can be trusted on occasion to rewrite and adapt the playwright's original. Thus he turned Shakespeare's early history plays into the legendary "Wars of the Roses" with additions by John.
He asked me to play Dr Faustus and I was impressed by his trust in my ability to play such an elusive part. Perhaps he recalled how willingly I had followed his instructions as a tyro professional in the Cambridge Marlowe Society productions of "Henry IV part 2" and of "Three Sisters". Perhaps he was impressed by my having survived more recently a long stint as Edward II
, another Marlowe hero. He didn't need, perhaps, to discuss the casting with other RSC directors as the production would not be in repertoire, but open at the 1974 Edinburgh Festival and then have a straight run at the Aldwych Theatre, the Company's London address.
John explained his view that the play is set entirely in Faustus's study in a book-lined set by Michael Annals that suggested the interior of a skull. The feeling would be that the action took place inside Faustus' head and this would be enhanced by the use of puppets. The problem of staging the vision of the seven Deadly Sins was to present them as human-sized puppets. The Good and the Bad Angels were mannequins held by me in the right and the left hands, as I spoke their lines. The incarnation of silent Helen of Troy was a beautiful mask draped in flowing chiffon that I carried across the stage to Faustus' bed - a cunning revelation of the deceitful nature of the devilish delights which entrance the poor sexually frustrated academic. A wilder notion that Mephistophiles himself should be a ventriloquist doll was eventually abandoned but not before I had learned the rudiments of throwing my voice with lifeless lips from a professional vent artist. The bonus of casting an actor rather than a doll was I got to work with Emrys James, one of the most intelligent actors ever; so bright he couldn't abide stupidity on or off the stage. His tongue could lash and I managed not to offend him.
Not all the cast was accomplished but the production worked. Despite the innovations of puppetry, the emotional centre was rooted in the exchanges between the scholar and his tempter and in the great Marlovian rhetoric of Faustus' death speech as Hell gapes and he is pulled down to his fate. — Ian McKellen, May 2003