Faustus, Hampstead Theatre, London
Thursday 02 November 2006
This fresh angle on the Faust story is devilishly suggestive. Director Rupert Goold and dramaturg Ben Power have joined forces on a version that first interlaces, and then lets leak into one another, episodes from Marlowe's powerful Renaissance take on drama's greatest over-reacher and newly written scenes involving the Brit artists Jake and Dinos Chapman.
The latter are followed in the run-up to their notorious desecration of a rare set of etchings of Goya's Disasters of War. The man who sold his soul to the devil eventually shares a stage with the men who concocted the artwork Hell. One of the most piquant sights in London theatre is the time-slip spectacle of Marlowe's hero encountering the Seven Deadly Sins at a modern media orgy after the 2003 Turner Prize.
The concept of the piece has been criticised in some quarters for failing to establish a precise equivalence between the project and predicament of Marlowe's Faustus (played with a mesmerising hushed intensity by Scott Handy) and the philosophy and somewhat less extreme fate of the Chapman Brothers (whose scruffy, smart-arse manner and shrugging missionary purpose are expertly conveyed by Jonjo O'Neill and Stephen Noonan).
But to my mind, the asymmetries are the point of a stage-work that finds both weird resemblances and disconcerting contrasts. The humanist Faustus breaks the ultimate taboo and descends into triviality. The anti-humanist Chapman brothers commit sacrilege by superimposing clown and puppy heads on the Disasters of War and it is left moot whether this gesture is, as they claim, an effort to restore the impact of Goya's etchings for a jaded public or rich-boy sensationalism.
Only the female Afghan photographer, who equates what they are doing to the destruction of the Buddhist statues in her country by the Taliban, feels too forced and clunking a character.
The piece was first seen in Northampton in 2004. It's a pity this London revival has fetched up at the Hampstead Theatre, a venue that seems to drain energy from most productions. Given a more appropriate showcase - at the Almeida, say - this Faustus would not lose an atom of its provocative power and would achieve the profile it deserves.
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