THEATRE Faust Lyric Studio, London

Mark Ravenhill has pointed out in interviews that one of the good things about his first play, Shopping and Fucking, was that the title gave the audience some hints about what they were in for - without going into details, let's just say it wasn't a play you would recommend to a friend suffering from haemorrhoids and a vivid imagination. As a result of this honesty, nobody ever walked out or complained.

This time around, though, he's been a little less upfront: his Faust has no obvious connection with the familiar story of the academic who trades his soul for knowledge and power. His central figure is, it's true, an academic: a brilliant French philosopher, famous for his writings on sexuality (any resemblance to Michel Foucault is, apparently, entirely intentional), whose latest hobbyhorse is the death of Man as an idea. But being an up-to-date Faust, he doesn't worry about trading his soul; having thrown in his job at a Californian university and set out in search of motels and adventure, the deals he makes are all fairly straightforward transactions to do with sex and drugs.

It's unclear, too, how far he is the tempted and how far the tempter - Faust or Mephistopheles. The blurring of the boundaries is something the philosopher pursues, returning throughout the play to two stories, one about a man who kills and eats a woman, the other about a woman who gouges out her own eyes and sends them to her lover. In each case, he asks the questions: which of the pair is cruel? Which is the seducer, which the seduced?

The problem is embodied in his own relationship with a young man he takes up with. The young man craves the philosopher's company, but denies that he wants sex with him. He, too, turns out to embody rather too neatly the modern dissolution of physical identity, the very Death of Man of which the philosopher speaks: he is only comfortable when observing the world through the lens of his camcorder, prefers to develop relationships over the Internet, enjoys self-mutilation, and when the philosopher does finally get inside his trousers, he expresses delight at achieving climax without feeling anything. As if that wasn't enough, he's also the son of somebody similar enough to Bill Gates to make a lawyer twitchy.

The play's main problem is the sense that some fairly swampy intellectual territory has been parcelled out into unrealistically straight-edged plots. If you don't feel like walking out of Nick Philippou's production, it's because of two factors. First, a pair of sharply realised, understated performances from Alain Pelletier - who also supervised the video clips that run through the piece - as the philosopher and Pete Bailie as his companion. Second, Ravenhill's ear for wry, allusive dialogue, which means that, however implausible the action and the philosophical underpinning, you're happy to go along with it.

To 15 Mar. Booking: 0181-741 2311

Robert Hanks

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