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Faustus
Hampstead Theatre, London

Andrew Haydon
posted
26 October 2006

In 2003 the Chapman brothers, perhaps the most deliberately shocking and perverse (I mean this as a compliment) of the Young British Artists, unveiled 'Insult to Injury' - a set of original Goya etchings, 'The Disasters of War', unto which they had painted the faces of clowns and bears. Inspired by this staggering act of artistic vandalism, Rupert Goold and Ben Power of the rebranded Oxford Stage Company - Headlong - have effectively done the same to Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus - taking the original work, cutting it drastically, and adding a radically fictionalised version of the Chapmans' creation of 'Insult to Injury' on top.

The first scene - Doctor Faustus in his study - is pretty standard fare, with the doctor soliloquising his intentions to summon devils with necromancy to sate his ever wilder ambitions. It is a surprise, then, when, for scene two, the walls of Laura Hopkins's beautifully designed dark Elizabethan study revolve to create a minimalist white cube-style gallery space and on walk the Chapman brothers to be interviewed by Foster, a hilarious caricature of a BBC arts presenter - a camp, smug, over-the-top composite of Mark Lawson and Simon Schama.

As the Chapman brothers explain to an increasingly outraged, incredulous Foster their reasons for painting over the Goya etchings, so the playwrights' agenda for this transformation of Faustus is eloquently explained: that the Goyas (and so, Marlowe's Faustus) have ceased to fulfil their original purpose - to shock, to communicate - and had become objects of reverence; and that reverence toward art wholly robs it of its purpose; and so, radical change is needed.

This adaptation retains the basic bones of the original storyline - Faustus decides to sell his soul, capers around the world enjoying his power for a bit, and is then forced to give up his soul to Lucifer after 24 years, at which point he finds himself abandoned by God and damned for eternity. The Chapman brothers storyline centres on the night when Jake and Dinos are to paint over the Goya etchings, into which is thrown a (presumably, wholly fictitious) Afghan camera-woman whom the brothers have asked to film the event. In an aside we see the pair in Spain buying the etchings - staged on a split level stage, with Faustus signing away his soul below. At another point, the Chapman Brothers unveil their Swastika-shaped work 'Hell' at the Royal Academy's Apocalypse exhibition, while Mephistopheles shows Faustus the Seven Deadly Sins. Later the meteorite-struck Pope of Maurizio Cattelan's 'Ninth Hour' awakens to become the Pope who is tormented by an invisible Faustus, while elsewhere both brothers briefly become Faustian figures themselves. These interstices between the original and new material add yet another dimension to this already complex framework, while the imposed Afghan film-maker introduces a disturbing - if slightly contrived - contemporary resonance for the Goya etchings, as well as drawing a provocative parallel between the Chapmans' planned art-terrorism and the destruction of the giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan by the Taliban. While some of the new script can tend toward speechifying, and sometimes appears a little schematic, there is enough that is intelligent, thought-provoking and witty to excuse the occasional hiccough.

Using the Chapman brothers is a stroke of genius. If Goold and Power had invented a pair of hypothetical artists, then the extraneous details concerning their works would have seemed like improbable parody. As it is, knowing that what is being discussed is true, insofar at least as the works exist, makes the piece all the more fascinating. If handled badly, this kind of staging of real people could simply create anxiety about whether the portrayals are accurate or 'realistic' enough. However, the Chapman brothers have already turned themselves into a kind of performance, and dramatising them seems like a perfectly logical next step, and here the duo are transformed into a cross between almost comic-book artistic messiahs and a latter-day Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. There is a brilliant scene after the after have just failed to win the 2001 Turner Prize for 'Hell', when they are standing in the winning entry - Martin Creed's 'Lights Going On and Off' where the pair discuss their art, and envy the simplicity of Creed's idea, while the lights continue to go on and off. It is both a fiercely intelligent discussion of art and ideas and is also incredibly funny at the same time.

One major difference between this adaptation of Faustus, and the Chapman brothers 'rectification' (their term - from the euphemism for murder in The Shining) of the Goya prints, is that Doctor Faustus is not really all that good in its original form, this revised version is - whisper it - much better than Marlowe's unabridged text. Another difference is that this adaptation does not replace the original for ever; after all, theatre - unlike art - does not deal in permanence. It is interesting that unlike the Chapmans, Headlong have chosen to retain the original title.

What is also interesting is the light this adaptation sheds on the way that, due to the current fashions in Jacobethan studies and modern dress productions, one can sometimes be left with the impression that the late 16th century was a time not at all unlike our own - when actually there are vast gulfs between the two eras particularly around scientific knowledge and religious belief - it is most refreshing to see a production which makes a centrepiece of these differences. Contemporary Britain does not, by and large, believe in the existence of either a tangible God or devil/s, and while the idea of selling one's soul is still in circulation, it has been radically downgraded from the early-modern vision of eternal damnation being discussed in the original. Most of Marlowe's points have now ceased to be shocking or relevant to a modern audience: what was once an scurrilous attack on Christianity, albeit one that acknowledged the existence of God only to question His power, has been transformed into a hymn to radical, creative relativism and the value of art. This Faustus, like the Chapman brothers, does not provide answers, but it makes an ironclad case for the necessity of asking the questions.


Till 18 November 2006

 
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