Anyone who has seen Sandy Grierson as Faustus must acknowledge the amazing energy of his performance. Sandy never leaves the stage during this production, which runs without an interval. He is at the centre of a company that often communicates as much, if not more, through images rather than words.

His performance (alternating the roles of Faustus/ Mephistophilis with Oliver Ryan, dependent on whose match goes out first) presents us with the doppelganger idea we saw him use in The Tempest, where he played Ariel to Jonathan Slinger’s Prospero. The same sad, compassionate figure is there in his Mephistophilis.

Mephistophilis wearing a white jacket and white trousers, bare-chested, spreads out his hands
Sandy as Mephistophilis
Photo by Helen Maybanks © RSC – Image Licensing

STUDYING THEATRE

Sandy’s strongly physical style of acting emerges from his early acquaintance with a wide Eastern European tradition he met at the Edinburgh Fringe. His school experience of Macbeth was reading the play around the class, supplemented by BBC video extracts. Unexciting. But seeing a Belarus company perform the play in their own language was riveting, he says.

From an early age Sandy knew that he wanted to be an actor. At 14, having seen Today is My Birthday by Polish director, Tadeusz Kantor, which he says blew his mind away, he actively sought to work with Zofia Kalinska and David Johnstone, two disciples of Kantor exploring European techniques. The atmosphere was professionally vigorous and he remembers working on Shakespeare’s comic characters Bardolph, Pistol and Launce.

Having taken English, History and Latin for Scottish Highers, Sandy did a drama course at the RSC. He studied in Paris with Theatre du Soleil before reading English at Bristol University. Besides working extensively abroad, he has featured prominently in Scottish theatre, working for the National Theatre.

SHAKESPEARE AND THE RSC

In 2011 Sandy played Puck in a non-traditional A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Rupert Gould’s Headlong Company, a role he says he first played as a child. When he came to the RSC in 2012 for the ‘What Country Friends Is This?’ season he played Ariel in The Tempest, understudied Feste in Twelfth Night, performing the role in the public run, and played Solinus in A Comedy of Errors with a darker political twist than usual.

It was during this season that Sandy saw Maria Aberg’s King John that impressed him greatly, and so he was delighted to work with her on Doctor Faustus. He had already played the role of Mephistophilis twice before, once with students from Stratford College, which they then took up to Edinburgh. Compared to Ariel, Sandy says, he finds Mephistophilis more human.

Doctor Faustus in a white vest and suspenders, kneeling on the floor and looking up into the light
Sandy as Doctor Faustus
Photo by Helen Maybanks © RSC – Image Licensing

THE DOCTOR AND THE DEMON

In performance, it is as if the two characters are one. In rehearsal, Sandy tells me, both he and Oliver were always present, so nothing was developed without the other’s awareness. The creative process was one of collaboration developed in rehearsal with Maria and her designer, Naomi Dawson and musical interpreter, Orlando Gough. What we get is a tragedy of despair and a brief awareness of something heavenly that is lost forever. The Helen sequence, with its concordance of music, movement and text, is heart-rending.

After seeing Maria Aberg’s dark rendition of this play, you can’t help wondering how Macbeth might emerge from a similar approach to storytelling.

Viv Graver

Viv Graver is a retired teacher, who taught Shakespeare for more than 30 years in the north of England. Her present interest is introducing Shakespeare into primary schools. Viv's blog is a series of interviews with RSC cast and creatives about their path to Shakespeare and how they first came to it, at school and elsewhere.

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