Faust and Furious; an Updated Production of Faustus Equates Marlowe's Anti-Hero with the Controversial Chapman Brothers. the Link Is Fitting: British Contemporary Theatre and Art Are Both Committed to Challenging the Status Quo, Argues Rachel Halliburton
Halliburton, Rachel, New Statesman (1996)
These days, it is almost impossible to venture into theatreland without being deafened by the sound of taboos being smashed. The theatrical vogue, it seems, is not so much shock and a we as shock and phwoarr. This January, audiences will be able to visit the Royal Court Theatre in London to see Sex Addict--a show in which, every night, the playwright Tim Fountain picks up a man on the internet with the help of the audience, and then goes off to have sex with him (without the help of the audience). If that doesn't appeal, then maybe Puppetry of the Penis will do--a display of eye-watering phallic origami, where men shape their penises to resemble anything from the Eiffel Tower to the Loch Ness monster.
It is now almost a decade since Sarah Kane's Blasted exploded on to the scene, with its extraordinary analysis of our society's relationship to violence, and its portrayals of rape, baby-eating and eye-gouging. In an era when the young were repeatedly dubbed apolitical, theatre suddenly seemed to have regained an anger and an energy that viscerally challenged the status quo. Through the impact of Kane's writing, and Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking a year later, drama was launched into a furious cycle of kicking at social taboos. In the past year, this has noticeably filtered through to interpretations of the classics: a Catalan production of Macbeth at the Barbican featured cunnilingus and necrophilia, while a German production of Ibsen's A Doll's House boasted a Lara Croft-style Nora, a dangerous sex kitten who ended her marriage with bullets rather than a simple slamming of the door.
It would be facile to make a direct comparison between the dynamic of outrage in today's theatre and the tirelessly documented controversies of the modern art world. Even so, there are inevitable parallels between the "in-yer-face" generation of playwrights and the Brit artists, not least because both have reconceptualised the body as a site for modern debate. Whether it's the anal-rape scene in Shopping and Fucking or Tracey Emin stuffing wads of cash between her legs, the sewing up of a vagina in Anthony Neilson's Stitching or the Chapman brothers' models of children with genitals on their faces, artists and playwrights alike have framed a world where little, physically, is sacred. It is a far cry from the late 1960s, when theatrical censorship still dominated and the Lord Chamberlain could go apoplectic at the sound of a lavatory flushing off-stage.
Now, at last, a play is making theatre explore its connections with modern art. It is not the first to do so: Yasmina Reza's Art and Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things have flirted with different aspects of conceptual art. But a new production of Christopher Marlowe's Faustus proposes an altogether more provocative relationship. Rupert Goold, artistic director of the Royal and Derngate Theatres, Northampton, and a rapidly rising star in British theatre, has collaborated with Ben Power to rework Marlowe's original.
The myth of Faustus selling his soul to the Devil is linked with the story of the contemporary artists Jake and Dinos Chapman. Rather than looking at their vast Goya-inspired tableau Hell (since destroyed in the Momart warehouse fire), which, as Goold concedes, would have been "too tricksy", the play examines the brothers' decision to deface a series of Goya prints, Disasters of War, to produce their own artwork, Insult to Injury. There are some particularly amusing crossovers: the Seven Deadly Sins are all recognisable types from the art world--Envy, needless to say, is a critic--and when Mephistopheles first appears, he is in a Chapman brothers mask. More profoundly, the juxtaposition of the two stories raises fascinating questions about how notions of what is sacred in our society have shifted. …