Faustus, Royal Theatre, Northampton

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The Independent Culture

As the climax of this wonderfully fresh and provocative version of Faustus, Mephistopheles slides a rubber clown head over the hero.

As the climax of this wonderfully fresh and provocative version of Faustus, Mephistopheles slides a rubber clown head over the hero. As the final seconds of his contract tick away, Faustus's fate here is to be jokily desecrated. What is going on?

The answer is that this is the clinching moment of two mischievously interwoven stories. Artistic director Rupert Goold and dramaturg Ben Power scored a notable success at Northampton's ever-enterprising Royal Theatre last January with a lushly persuasive stage adaptation of Paradise Lost. They push their luck even further now with the thoughtful, cheeky aplomb of this Faustus in which the calculated outrage of Marlowe's ambitious Renaissance overreacher finds a tragicomic modern counterpart in the taboo-breaking antics of artists Jake and Dinos Chapman.

The protagonist who sells his soul to the devil ends up sharing a stage with the artists who fashioned Hell, and who, in one view of the matter, sold whatever soul they had left with Insult to Injury. This is the work in which they systematically defaced, with superimposed clown and puppy heads, one of the few remaining sets of Goya's Disasters of War etchings, made from the artist's original plates. In Laura Hopkins' bold, imaginative design the shifts and eventual mergings are handled with a cool wit. An uncommonly compelling and sensitive Faustus, Scott Handy deliberates with a hushed intensity in a book-crammed study whose walls close in to become the white minimalist ambience of the Chapmans' studio or a pristine modern-art gallery.

There's plenty of diabolic drollery in this version, as Marlowe's hero fetches up, in the course of his travels, at an agonisingly fashionable Turner Prize bash, where there are no shortage of candidates (Critic equals Envy etc) for the Seven Deadly Sins. Cattelan's Pope struck by a meteor gets up and brushes himself down, ready to become the pontiff whom Faustus baits. Martin Creed's Lights Going On and Off provides the very funny fluctuating illumination. What stops these gags from feeling sophomoric is the show's knowing awareness that it is itself implicated in the very thing it explores, offering another kind of prankish painting-over of a masterpiece.

The juxtaposition here of the flawed humanism of Marlowe's hero and the flawed anti-humanism of the Chapman brothers (splendidly played by Martin Savage and Richard Katz) keeps open the question of whether their art is a jolting extension of Goya's despair or rich-boy philistinism. Devilishly suggestive.