Whether it’s “Damn Yankees” or “Dr Faustus,” most adaptations of the Faust myth — in which a man makes a pact with the devil — concentrate on the soul, not the selling. Not this one. Rupert Goold’s smart new version at Hampstead Theater intercuts key scenes from Christopher Marlowe’s original with a new play focusing on the morality and the value of art, its making, its makers and, of course, its sales. The ideas driving the piece may be stronger than the realization but, for once, this doesn’t matter.
The biggest boon of this adroit juxtaposition of ancient and modern is that it restores tension to a plot that famously has none. Normally, once you’ve seen Faustus sign the pact with Mephistofeles, it’s just a matter of time, and much debauchery, before the devil returns to collect. Here, that same inevitable trajectory is charged up by the wholly new scenario
Goold’s new (almost) devils are real-life Brit-art bad boys Jake and Dinos Chapman. They have courted controversy with self-consciously confrontational works including “Hell,” an enormous tableau of tiny Nazi figures enacting apocalyptic scenes that collectively form a giant swastika. It was nominated for the 2003 Turner Prize, Britain’s contemporary conceptual art award that annually raises a media hullabaloo.
Both the prize and the work are referred to in the play, but the focus is the Chapmans’ more recent work “Insult to Injury.” This consists of a rare set of 80 original Goya etchings depicting the horrors of war, which the brothers bought and then superimposed on them puppies’ and clowns’ heads. The brothers described the act as “rectifying” Goya. Others called it vandalism.
In Goold’s cunningly constructed drama, we follow the “creation” of this new work, interwoven with the traditional Faust scenario.
Laura Hopkins’ strong design renders the artful similarities between the tales with cleverly contrasting sets backed onto each other. The doomy, dark gray walls of Faustus’ study where he conjures the devil wheel around to create a stark, fashionably white cube where the brothers are at work on their supposedly devilish creation.
Furthermore, character ideas hop easily between the two. The pact with the devil is mirrored by the brothers’ purchase via a Barcelona art dealer (a marvelously oleaginous Jason Morell). And with Faustus’ encounter with the Seven Deadly Sins, the twin scenarios fuse together at a party for the Turner prize. The traditional character of Envy doubles with Foster (Mark Lockyer), the trendy, TV-friendly art critic who has been given the scoop on the Chapmans’ work.
Not all the parallels work so well. The modern correlative for Helen of Troy is a idealistic camerawoman (Sophie Hunter) brought in to film the Chapmans. Her rather thin character is there to argue against what she sees as their act of desecration, something she does with increasing urgency as, thriller-like, the clock ticks down to the moment where the Goyas will be effaced.
Stephen Noonan is icily controlled as the more articulate Jake. He’s matched by Jonjo O’Neill as the quieter Dinos, whose seemingly benign manner makes his hidden anger more trenchant.
By comparison, the Faustus scenes grow increasingly pallid. Shorn of much of the most elaborate writing, Scott Handy’s Faustus seems increasingly out of focus in a production that is much more interested in the modern story. He’s not helped by a leering, insinuating Jake Maskall, whose Mephistofeles looks dangerously sexy but lacks all depth or range.
There are problems, too, with Goold’s pacing, with certain ideas lingered over to the point where energy drains away. But despite its flaws, the immediacy of the piece is genuinely exciting.
If it errs on the side of debate, it’s a debate about art that’s worth hearing, thanks to Goold’s considerable theatrical brio. And as a way of updating a well-worn classic, it’s certainly imaginative.