Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 24 October, 2006

The foyer displays advertising Rupert Goold's re-branding of the Oxford Stage Company as Headlong Theatre may be ungrammatical to the point of illiteracy, but by gum, it's living up to its new name. A rare revival of Edward Bond's Brechtian satire Restoration is now followed by this revival of Goold's 2004 Northampton production of his and Ben Power's treatment of Christopher Marlowe's best-known play. It divided critical opinion then and no doubt will now, but I love it.

The posters ascribe the play to "Christopher Marlowe and other hands", a knowing nod to both form and subject of this version. The main strand of Marlowe's play has been intertwined with a series of scenes concerning Brit-art provocateurs Jake and Dinos Chapman's 2003 "rectification" of Francisco Goya's etchings Disasters Of War by putting clowns' and puppies' heads on the figures in Goya's grotesque tableaux of carnage. As the Chapmans to Goya, so Goold and Power to Marlowe: the lines and power of the original can be seen along with the cheeky contemporary additions. As Faustus (Scott Handy) is led astray by Mephistopheles (Jake Maskall), so the Chapmans (Stephen Noonan as Jake and Jonjo O'Neill as Dinos) alternate as each other's tempter. Can artistic celebrity be compared to selling one's soul for power and fortune? In this case, it can. Goold and Power make clear the parallel that each narrative involves a conscious decision to blaspheme: in the literal sense when Faustus signs his soul away to Lucifer, and against a modern artistic "theology" when the Chapmans issue their conceptual challenge. The motif of Hell crosses boundaries, too, as Mephistopheles' realm of the damned is compared with the Chapmans' 2001 installation entitled Hell (which, we are reminded, was itself destroyed in a warehouse fire in 2004).

It's all dazzlingly clever in the best sense of the word. Every time an over-emphatic note is struck, such as an Afghan camerawoman telling Jake the too-sententious story of the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, another chime of beautiful audacity sounds, as when a figure of the Pope felled by a meteorite in Maurizio Catalan's sculpture La Nona Ora gets to his feet to become the Pope who is mocked by an invisible Faustus. Mark Lockyer turns in a wicked parody of art pundit Matthew Collings, into the bargain. The final irony is that the Hampstead Theatre has a foyer exhibition of other Chapman "rectifications" of Goya, which are revealed as banal and trivial. This play, though, is anything but: far from being navel-gazing conceptual art, it told me more about our individual response to the enormity of war than the entire evening of plays and discussion about Darfur that I had seen 24 hours earlier.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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