Kevin Elyot is obsessed with obsessive love, and his fascination is catching. This playwright (of My Night With Reg fame) depicts doomed yet persistent passions with an intensity that's all the more riveting for being constrained and entwined with humour. Thus, contrary to the title, it's hard to take your eyes off his new play, Forty Winks, directed by Katie Mitchell.
You never quite know if you are watching a crime thriller here, and the opening scene toys with that sinister possibility as we find ourselves in a hotel bedroom. It looks blandly serene: pale green wallpaper; grey evening light filtering through the net curtain. But Dominic Rowan's thirtysomething Don has just answered the door and his back is drenched with sweat. Anastasia Hille's Diana, quivering on the threshold, clearly wants to be asked in and is making panting, nervous small talk. It becomes clear that they've just attended a funeral and have had some past intimacy. He struggles to resist her advances, hastily explains away a thud from the bathroom, and seems petrified by her sudden ardent kiss.
A giant steel shutter snaps down on this scene and when it opens again we are in flashback. After 14-odd years abroad, Don has impulsively turned up at Diana's house. Mourning his mother's death, he wanders into his ex-girlfriend's garden as she and her gay brother, Charlie, and her husband, Howard, are sitting around the remains of an alfresco lunch. As the table is cleared and everybody prepares to dash to a concert, Don is caught in a chain of tense tête-à-têtes about the unforgettably ardent love-triangles of their school days. He ends up staying behind at the house, watching over Diana's 14-year-old daughter, Hermia, who has developed alarming narcolepsy - possibly as a result of being assaulted on the heath a year before. Another 14-odd years later, we see Don circling back again to Diana's house.
This darkening drama is shot through with delightful shafts of comic relief. Hille and Rowan are treading a superbly fine line between awkwardness and searing grief, and Paul Ready is also excellent as the chattering, needy Charlie.
However, it must be said that the play is flawed. Charlie's talk about writing a play sounds self-consciously contrived on the part of the dramatist, the confessions of rekindled adoration feel slightly rushed, and the crime thriller plotline culminates in two creaky melodramatic twists. Still, the performances never flag and Rowan and Hille's moments of agonised desire are burnt into my memory.
Nick Stafford's new domestic drama, Love Me Tonight, shares Elyot's concern with the shock of bereavement and the potential recklessness that spins off that. Nothing obviously dramatic happens. A fiftysomething father and mother, Roy and Moira, just hang around in their kitchen, talking with their thirtysomething son and daughter, Stuart and Sarah. But this is immediately after the funeral of their third child, Vince, who has died of cancer in his teens, and a mass of old niggling irritations and suppressed grief lies just below the surface of their conversation: Stuart starts asking questions about supposed past and present extramarital flings; Sarah blames her parents for screwing her up; and both offspring covertly suspect the bitterness of their parents' marriage somehow poisoned Vince.
Perhaps Stafford's theme of talking things through - for better or worse - is excessively hammered home. Also, in insensitive hands, this script could easily seem dull and verbose. But this is nonetheless a quietly extraordinary piece of funny, touching writing. I don't think I've ever seen a play that's so sensitive to the minutiae of family tensions, and Kathy Burke's cast superbly bring that out with humane warmth. Nicolas Tennant is particularly outstanding as the fragile and aggressive Stuart and Linda Bassett is wonderfully mercurial - steely, funny and despairing - as Moira. Terrific.
If the past is catching up with Elyot's and Stafford's protagonists, the future is careering towards Faustus. That is doubly true in the radical adaptation of Marlowe's play created by artistic director Rupert Goold and his dramaturg Ben Power. Not only does Marlowe's overreaching hero find - after signing his pact with the devil - that the clock is ticking fast, we also keep leaping from the Tudor era to the contemporary art world - for this is Faustus intercut with a play about Dinos and Jake Chapman, the BritArt siblings.
Thanks to Goold and Power's moral thoughtfulness, this revamp avoids being pretentious. The production is also visually enthralling and surprisingly smooth in its time travel. Scott Handy's Faustus, togged out in academically rumpled doublet and hose, paces round his brown, book-cluttered study, deciding to devote his life to the black art of necromancy. Then, as if by magic, the walls spin, translating us to a bare white minimalist space. A balding guy in brash designer glasses and a young woman with a video camera sneak into view in slow motion - which makes the transition menacingly dream-like.
A large pinch of satire is thrown in too, for the guy in specs is a ghastly TV presenter who has come to interview the Chapman brothers. Paul Chahidi plays him as smug, pushy, vacuous, like a Vice-figure from Bosch (but wearing a suit). Meanwhile, the main narrative thrust is that Dinos and Jake have failed to win the Turner Prize with Hell - their landscape featuring hoards of atrocity-enacting toy soldiers - and they're now working up to Insult to Injury. In other words, they are buying and preparing to deface the complete set of Goya's harrowing etchings, Disasters of War. In Goold and Power's imagined version of events, the brothers ask the camerawoman, Helena, to film the "rectifying" of the Goyas and she - herself a victim of the war - vehemently tries to stop them.
The standard of acting is uneven: Handy's Faustus, unfortunately, becomes a stolid bore, and sometimes you feel the juxtaposed stories are not a good fit. But Martin Savage's Jake and Richard Katz's Dinos are compulsive viewing: swaggering and cynical but also with an angry belief in their revolutionary action. Indeed, regardless of the production's shortcomings, its adventurous spirit remains exciting, and the avoidance of simple parallels is ultimately thought-provoking.
Sometimes the Chapmans are clearly a twin version of Faust, going to the bad as they sign on the dotted line to purchase the etchings from a Mephistophelean, amoral art dealer. Sometimes, when one of them wavers, the other seems to play the devil. Helen can also be interpreted as, alternately, a good angel and the bewitching Helen of Troy. Most interestingly, right at the end, after the production seems to have strongly damned Insult to Injury, you suddenly see the work, projected on high, and it is surprisingly powerful. On a meta-level, of course, Goold and Power have slashed up a classic and painted over it too - except radical theatre productions never irrevocably destroy the original. Interesting work.
Finally, apologies for getting my Russian ladies in a pickle in last week's review of The Mandate. Anastasia Nikolaevna (aka Nastia, the cook) is played by Sinead Matthews.
'Forty Winks': Royal Court, London SW1 (020 7565 5000), to 4 Dec; 'Love Me Tonight': Hampstead, London NW3 (020 7722 9301), to 20 Nov; 'Faustus': Theatre Royal, Northampton (01604 624811), to 20 NovReuse content