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First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 22 April 2008

Does taking an old, much-respected work of art and creating something new with it constitute vandalism and detract from the original work, or is it a reinvigoration of the art, recreating the vitality it originally had? The question is central to the Headlong (formerly Oxford Stage Company) production of Faustus currently playing at Hampstead, which combines Marlowe’s original work, with a new plot involving Brit Art stalwarts Jake and Dinos Chapman. Matthew Amer pondered the artistic conundrum at the press night…

In 16th century Germany, John Faustus is bored with his lot in life. Law, medicine, divinity; none of them can give him the power and carnal pleasures he so longs for. The dark arts can, and with ease he summons Mephistopheles – a slinky, animalistic and unnatural Jake Maskall – a whispering devil in his ear who can offer him the wonders of the world in return for his everlasting soul.

Back in 21st century London the Chapman brothers have bought Goya’s violent The Disasters Of War etchings and are about to ‘rectify’ them by painting clowns’ faces over the heads of their subjects.

The production’s first half switches between Faustus’s dark, candlelit, book-filled study and the clean, bright white studio of the Chapmans; Laura Hopkins’s set folds in and out on itself as if by using Faustus’s dark arts.

The second half sees everything merge into one. The linear nature of time is loosened and imagery slips between the two stories; Faustus’s tour of hell is staged at the opening of the Chapman’s 2000 piece Hell, art works come alive and monks become punters. Yet the two distinct strands of story are never lost.

Stephen Noonan and Jonjo O’Neill are stone-faced as the Chapmans’, bringing the driest of humour to two very serious characters, and Scott Handy revels in Marlowe’s language as the ambitious yet frightened Faustus. The show is almost stolen, though, by Mark Lockyer, playing a posing, preening, pretentious BBC art critic who brings a little satirical relief to the play’s building tension.

Among the classic and the new, the clever lighting from Malcolm Rippeth – which includes a scene set in Martin Creed’s 2001 Turner Prize-winning art installation The Lights Going On And Off – and Adam Cork’s ever-ominous score, the question lurks question: have Rupert Goold and Ben Power, by adapting Marlowe’s Faustus, done exactly the same as the Chapmans are threatening to do to the Goya? And if they have, is it right or wrong?

Like the Chapmans’ work, Faustus asks more questions than it has answers for.



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