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Theatre / FAUST - RSC, Stratford

Viewed from an orthodox Christian point of view, Goethe's Faust is a drama which takes two plays, six-and-a-half hours and a great deal of fidgeting around the cosmos in order to arrive at the wrong conclusion. Howard Brenton's new version, staged now by Michael Bogdanov in the Swan, makes a pointed if slightly laboured joke about this, teasing us with a retributive false-ending.

Once he has lost the long wager with Mephistopheles through his choked- out desire to freeze the present moment, Michael Feast's now aged Faust looks to have had it for good, as he topples from his wheelchair into the pit. The house-lights go up, the two main actors start to shake hands, but then a very Bogdanovian "real-life" row about modern audiences and textual accuracy erupts on-stage between the "Director" and the "Poet" and this results in the proceedings being wound back to incorporate "the old boy's last rewrite".

So, although Faust's CV would do credit to many an inhabitant of hell, he gets the Goethe Award for Tireless Activity in the shape of a permanent holiday in Heaven. As presented here, this is a kitsch-paradise where the wings are styrofoam, Josie Lawrence is the Virgin Mary, and the pertly- rumped boyish angels, dangling on trapezes, bring out the lustful scoutmaster in Satan. It looks the sort of place which would be purgatory for Goethe himself who when he wrote that "I should not know what to do with eternal bliss, if it did not present me with new problems and difficulties to overcome" seemed to have something more "Enlightenment" in mind than a camp gymnasium with hymns. Fine to satirise the ending, but not if people feel it trivialises what came before.

In Educating Rita, the heroine answers an essay question on how she would solve the staging problems of Ibsen's Peer Gynt with the answer "do it on the radio". The joke would work just as well with Goethe's Faust. From professorial study to a kinky Walpurgisnacht orgy that will leave you unable to look at plastic tubing in quite the same way; from a blood-spattered operating theatre of a Witches' kitchen to the world of Greek myth revisited. Negotiating the various transitions, Bogdanov's production shows what fluency can be achieved with trapezes, a tilting two-way mirror for supernatural visions and prying, a couple of screens for intimate close-ups and a very active trap at the centre of the stage.

What it does not give you is any sense of awe. With the exception of the Gretchen tragedy (where Sophie Heyman is very moving), the production, the script and the acting are happiest when playing up the comic aspects of the proceedings. Michael Feast's performance as Faust is certainly a feat of courage (he has some scenes of very exposed nakedness) but the rhetorical flourish of it was not always backed up with a sufficient sense of inwardness. As he progresses from a corduroy-scruff academic to a power- mad humpty-dumpty in a motorised wheelchair, you are never allowed to forget you are watching a performance. Even the scenes with Gretchen, where he is at his best, are spoiled by a wig that screams "Wig" at you in 16 languages.

Well worth the price of the ticket and the outlay of time, though, is Hugh Quarshie's elegantly suited and superbly funny Mephistopheles. He plays him as the coolest of cool customers, with a satanic sang froid that is always teetering on the edge of self-satire, however undignified his latest disguise. Let's hope he doesn't have to wait for his reward in heaven.

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