DOCTOR JOHN FAUSTUS is a fool — and not only for turning down all those sensible but mundane career options he had, as a scholar conversant with theology, philosophy, medicine, and law, and instead making a pact with the Devil. Marlowe’s play has him swap his immortal soul for “four-and-twenty years” of “voluptuousness”, as supplied by that infernal attendant Mephistopheles.
As the years go on, he resorts to increasingly cheap tricks: making himself invisible in order to play tricks on the Pope; tricking a horse-courser by wearing a fake leg. He conjures up Helen of Troy to impress his peers at Wertenberg, and begs to become her lover in a desperate bid to distract himself from the ticking of the clock. Clever though he is, Faustus spends his life merely entertaining himself and others.
The question not on your lips at this point is: “What about the Chapman brothers?” That is exactly the question asked, however, by the production of Faustus currently on tour, adapted (in collaboration with Ben Power) and directed by Rupert Goold. It is a clever, challenging piece, but mainly for what it does with its original, non-Marlovian material. The opening scene takes place in Faustus’s dark study, as usual, but then the play slow-motions into a white-walled studio where the Chapman brothers, Jake and Dinos, are about to give a television interview about their latest project.
This involves, quite simply, taking an original set of prints by Goya, Disasters of War, and painting the heads of clowns and puppies on to them. The brothers want to “rectify” these artworks — to render them shocking once more, to go beyond the tired effects of other contemporary Young British Artists: “We had it sitting around for a couple of years, every so often taking it out and having a look at it,” the real Dinos has said. Jake has added: “We always had the intention of rectifying it, to take that nice word from The Shining, when the butler’s trying to encourage Jack Nicholson to kill his family — to rectify the situation.”
According to one art critic, Richard Dorment, these are “genuinely strange people, two grown men arrested in early adolescence”. Are they also iconoclasts or visionaries? Or fools like Faustus?
Goold’s production argues that the desecration of the Goya prints is a crime against art and humanity, though in itself it is a radical, exciting defacement of a masterpiece (Marlowe’s play survives in two versions, however, that demonstrate that it was subject to significant revision in its early history).
The action swings uneasily back and forth between YBAs and Faustus on their parallel journeys towards damnation, quoting directly from the Chapmans’ reported justifications for their actions. Meanwhile, Faustus is condemned to serve out his diabolical contract without even the indulgence of his horseplay: goodbye, goofing around with vintners and jealous knights; hello, the Seven Deadly Sins at a party for the Turner Prize.
This Faustus is not necessarily at its best when the two worlds collide, though Goold and Power make some neat connections between the twin stories: the gallery-owner who sells the Goya prints to the Chapman brothers turns around and introduces himself to Faustus as Lucifer himself. The notorious piece of art depicting John Paul II crushed by a meteorite is brought on stage, and eventually regresses into the pope whom Faustus invisibly torments.
As Faustus himself, Scott Handy delivers a gabbling, intense performance, perhaps most affecting at the end of the play, as Faustuses often are, when he tries to jump up to his God. “Who pulls me down?” becomes an anguished, helpless cry that no one hears, save perhaps Jake Maskall’s odd Mephistopheles (nowhere near as sinister as Richard McCabe’s demonic figure at the Young Vic a few years ago).
The Chapmans get suitably cool portrayals from Stephen Noonan as Jake and Jonjo O’Neill as Dinos. There is excellent support throughout from Sophie Hunter as a camerawoman called Helena — no prizes for guessing how she connects with the Faustus story — as well as Mark Lockyer as a vapid art critic and Jason Morell in a variety of roles. Morell’s turn as a drunken gallery guest murmuring something about Ruskin is particularly funny, if only because he then stands up and admonishes Faustus to repent of his foolish ways.
The Chapman brothers and the good doctor turn out to be on different paths, after all: Faustus would repent if he could, in fact tries everything he can to escape perdition, while Dinos finally assuages Jake’s doubts about their Goya project, which they called Insult to Injury, and they confidently press on with their painting. In the sense that Rupert Goold’s production of Faustus is also an experiment with the work of an old master, it is on the side of the YBAs. Strange that it should denigrate them so vociferously.
Faustus is at the Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London NW3, until 18 November. Phone 020 7722 9301.