The lady’s for burning

Siobhan Redmond as Mephistopheles in Doctor Faustus. Picture: Keith Pattinson
Siobhan Redmond as Mephistopheles in Doctor Faustus. Picture: Keith Pattinson
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YOU’D never confuse her with Clara Bow or Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, but this afternoon Siobhan Redmond can only be described as an It Girl. She’s telling me about the part she’s playing in Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe’s soul-selling tragedy, and she just can’t settle on a gender. “I get to be both Arthur and Martha, which is delightful,” she says. Delightful but hard to pin down.

Breaking with convention, director Dominic Hill has cast the Glasgow-born star of Between The Lines and Holby City as Mephistopheles, the fallen angel tasked with luring the scholarly Doctor Faustus off the straight and narrow. It’s a part normally played by a man and, as she gets to grips with the role, Redmond isn’t able to say whether she’s a boy or whether he’s a girl or – more likely – whether it’s a matter of “yes to all of the above”.

“Demons are not gender specific,” she says at the end of a day’s rehearsal in Glasgow. “But they’re generally known as a boy and, yes, I’m generally known as a girl. That was one of the things that intrigued me. I had been thinking of Mephistopheles as ‘him’ but he ruthlessly exploits his femininity, so I’ve arrived at ‘it’ by default, just to remind myself that it isn’t human and you can’t expect it to conform to a set of gender stereotypes.”

So “it” it is – although she drifts in and out of “he”, “she” and “they” during our conversation. And that’s an ambiguity that suits this charismatic actor just fine. Having played the garrulous Barbs Marshall in Liz Lochhead’s Perfect Days, the manipulative Elizabeth I in Schiller’s Mary Stuart and the obstinate Gruach, aka Lady Macbeth, in David Greig’s Dunsinane (back for another Scottish outing later this year), she is more than up for the challenge of throwing an extra layer of mystique over one of the great roles of English-language theatre.

“The demon would come to you in a way that you would find most palatable,” says Redmond, who studied English language and literature at the University of St Andrews. “This demon doesn’t quite give you what you want, but close enough for you to find it interesting enough to become engaged with.” In the case of the orphaned Faustus, the vision of Mephistopheles as a potential mother figure could be very alluring indeed.

Breaking with convention one step further, this co-production between Glasgow’s Citizens and the West Yorkshire Playhouse is not exclusively the work of Marlowe. Acts one, two and five are as he wrote them in 1592, but three and four are modern-day rewrites. There are stylistic inconsistencies that suggest Marlowe may never have written those two acts in the first place and, as they are also full of satirical references long past their sell-by date, Hill felt justified to bring in playwright Colin Teevan as a 21st-century collaborator.

The Edinburgh University graduate, whose adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt was a critical hit for Hill and Dundee Rep in 2007, has given the script a Las Vegas update. This is a Faustus with a love of magic who wants to be more famous than Derren Brown.

“We have a little bit of a history for Mephistopheles which is not in the original play,” says Redmond. “I’m enjoying exploiting the opportunities that Colin has given me to play different games with different aspects of the new bit of the story.”

It’s all something of an adventure, especially for Redmond who spent much of last year playing the haughty Elizabeth Woodville in Richard III for the RSC and is now relishing the chance to get her tongue around the distinctively different language of one of Shakespeare’s great contemporaries.

“After nine months of playing Elizabeth Woodville, it’s a joyous relief to play a flinty-hearted demon who doesn’t care,” she laughs. “I’ve done a bit of ­Marlowe before – I played Venus in Dido, Queen Of Carthage at the National. It’s a delight to have that stuff in your mouth. There’s lots of blood in his writing. It’s strong, high-octane stuff, with lots of energy and movement about it. Then he’ll just rest on some beautiful piece of poetry and then move forward again. It’s exhilarating.”

In an era when actors frequently complain about the lack of decent parts for women over 30, it also gives Redmond the opportunity to tackle a sizeable part that was intended for a man.

“There’s a certain lack of self-pity, which I quite enjoy,” she says. “There’s always a freedom that I’ve felt when playing women who don’t really care whether or not you like them – and I’ve played quite a lot of them now –which is traditionally not very female. Most women do care, but it’s quite liberating to play women who don’t.

“I’m enjoying playing the places where Mephistopheles is clearly more male than female, but much of the time the demon is dressed in intensely female clothing, so I’m enjoying playing with that.

“And I’m enjoying playing the otherworldliness – you’ve got to have enough that is recognisably human for the audience to feel it is vaguely plausible, but it can’t be completely human or it ceases to be of another dimension.”

Flash forward to this week and it’s time for the show’s opening night in Leeds. James Brining, formerly Hill’s colleague at the helm of Dundee Rep, is now in charge of the West Yorkshire Playhouse and this has been his first chance to programme a cross-Border collaboration. “I want to make classic work that feels contemporary, vibrant and alive, and Dominic is the most obvious person for me to get in to do that.” he says. “There’s something about moving from Marlowe’s language into modern-day language and then back again which has a really interesting effect.”

Sure enough, Hill presents a thrilling postmodern deconstruction of the play, one that pictures Faustus as a geeky bedsit boffin who lusts after the quick-fix shortcuts of magic but fails to see the emptiness behind his own illusions, while the production alternates between Marlowe’s 16th-century discourse on the perils of temptation and Teevan’s vision of capitalist excess.

As Redmond says: “It’s an old play and a new play: it’s the best of both worlds.” «

Twitter: @MarkFFisher

Doctor Faustus, West Yorkshire Playhouse until 16 March; Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, 5–27 April.