“This night I’ll conjure, or I’ll die,” says Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, and so he sells his soul to the devil and embarks on a series of indulgences and adventures that take him to death’s door anyway. The “big idea” of director Rupert Goold and his Headlong Theatre (formerly the Oxford Stage Company) is that Faustus leaves his dark, book-lined study for the bright white nightmare world of modern art.
To be more specific, the world of Brit Art, where the visions he encounters are those created by the Chapman brothers, Jake and Dinos. It's an audacious and imaginative conceit that does not quite work, as Marlowe’s play seems constrained and reduced. The Chapmans’ “Hell” is the obvious link – “Hell hath no limits nor is circumscribed in one self place” – a swastika-shaped tableau dotted with tiny Nazi figures.
At least in that respect the production honours the current West End craze for evoking the Third Reich – along with The Producers, Bent, Cabaret, and the upcoming revival of The Sound of Music – and the parade of seven deadly sins become animated, decadent works of art and indeed the gallery itself, where the reclining Pope is struck by a meteorite and drink and sexual favours are dispensed by a hostess in silk shorts with Nazi accessories.
Scott Handy’s aghast Faustus rather trembles on the brink of all this without explaining how he feels about it, and his dialogues with Mephistopheles (Jake Maskall) are far less persuasive or engaging than the flagrant theorising of the Chapmans, played with wonderful insolence by Stephen Noonan (the shaven-haired, sly and wary Jake) and Jonjo O'Neill (the more outrageously expressive Dinos).
Goold and his co-adaptor Ben Power – the two of them were also responsible for a memorable Paradise Lost at the Theatre Royal, Northampton, and on tour - have clearly had most fun with the Chapmans, pushing old Faustus to the background. The artists’ philosophy of cultural nihilism is drawn out by Mark Lockyer’s hilarious television arts presenter, a visual cross between Tim Marlow (the suit and the pink shirt) and Mark Kermode (the faux-blokeish manner, the Teddy Boy hairstyle), who tells White City at one point that his interview, turning into a scoop, might be more “Hugh Edwards” than “Mark Lawson”.
Helen, “the face that launched a thousand ships”, is herself a media tart, switching sides from the interviewer to the Chapmans’ studio. Central to the show – and on display in the theatre’s downstairs foyer – are the “Insult to Injury” defacements of Goya sketches, suggesting that Headlong’s show is itself an act of impertinent “rectification” of Marlowe.
I love the wittiness of this idea – and also the gorgeous trick whereby the entire Turner prize finale, where the Chapmans fail to win, is eclipsed in the on-off light show of the triumphant installation. But the tragic power, beauty and melancholy of the original play are sorely missed.
- Michael Coveney