Hampstead Theatre Autumn 2006
Don't come to the Hampstead Theatre expecting a revival of Christopher Marlowe's classic drama of the legendary soul-seller. Adapters Rupert Goold and Ben Power have constructed a whole new play bouncing off Marlowe's, and at least 60% of their play is new.
Selected scenes from Marlowe alternate or overlap with an imagined reconstruction of episodes in the lives of the real twenty-first-century artists and brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman, who in 2003 notoriously painted over valuable sketches by Goya. (The fact that an earlier work of theirs was titled Hell may have suggested the juxtaposition.)
The Chapman brothers plot shows them planning the Goya project, affirming their artistic theories that justify it, buying the valuable sketches, debating with an onlooker whether they have the right to desecrate them, vacillating, and then acting.
Throughout, direct parallels are made that equate the Chapmans to Faustus. The scene of them signing the contract to buy the Goyas overlaps with Faustus signing his contract with the devil, their sitting down to paint is played simultaneously with Faustus' descent into hell, and so on.
Very occasionally this is done with some wit, as when Faustus's display of the Seven Deadly Sins is made up of attendees at one of the Chapmans' gallery showings.
But for the most part the parallels seem very strained, and the point that contemporary artists are damned and going to hell is the kind of extreme oversimplification that would be rejected as a fulminating letter to a newspaper.
Certainly co-adapter Rupert Goold, acting as his own director, can do little to make it come alive. The Marlowe scenes are strikingly wooden and unevocative, with Scott Hardy a stolid Faustus and Jake Maskall an oddly effeminate Mephistopheles - both, I am sure, merely doing what their director told them to do.
The modern scenes are an uneasy mix of undramatic theoretical debate with generally unsuccessful attempts to enliven them by inserting the comic figure of a jargon-spouting pseud of an art critic, overplayed (again, I presume, as directed) by Mark Lockyer.
And with clumsy soap opera, the Goya project attacked by a female photographer whose experience of war is less effective at making the brothers waver than her sexual appeal (this whole sequence borrowed bodily from David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow).
The brothers themselves, played by Stephen Noonan and Jonjo O'Neill, are barely differentiated stick figures.
Only if the very idea of using a classic work as a counterpoint to a new story is entirely new to you will you find much of interest in this production, and even then you are not likely to be convinced by its thesis.
As always in this theatre, the stage design (by Laura Hopkins) and physical production are inventive and impressive, in this case more so than the play they are supporting.
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Review - Faustus - Hampstead Theatre 2006