Archive for the ‘ Theatrigirl’s views ’ Category

Is Classical Music Relevant: Cambridge Union debate, Stephen Fry and Kissy Sell Out

“The idea that classical music is the province of white-wigged old farts shows a failure of imagination and rank snobbery.”

Thus spake Stephen Fry at a debate in Cambridge last night on the relevance of classical music to today’s youth. His adversaries included Kissy Sell-Out, Radio 1 DJ and critic Greg Sandow. But it was Stephen “dub-step is my life” Fry who stole the show – and indeed won the debate (365 to 57, 88 abstentions). As someone embarking on a career as a classical music journalist I’m obviously pleased with the result, but much of the debate was depressing.

Classical Music

White-wigged old fart?

Over and over the genre was called “elitist”, snobby, exclusive, out of touch. Yet only yesterday morning I was musing with my pianist and conductor house mate as to whether now was the best possible time to be a classical musician – or indeed spectator.

London alone has a healthy clutch of symphony orchestras performing music from Puccini to Pärt, Tippet to Turner, every evening. And there are chamber ensembles across the country, constantly experimenting, performing contemporary music and attracting new audiences. The classical music scene is vibrant, exciting and full of incredibly talented people.

Nor is it fair to call the classical music world elitist. Opera houses and concert halls are busting their gut strings to show young people that the door is open, there are comfy seats waiting for them and –look – you don’t even have to wear a suit.

This summer I will be going to the Glyndebourne opera festival for the second time in as many years. Last year my ticket was £30, this year it is £20 – both special deals for the under 30s. And the OAE are forever throwing late night events with tickets for just £5 – which always seem to sell out. Thanks to these initiatives, classical concerts are full of young people just enjoying the music and, rare from worrying about it’s relevance, they are simply thankful that for a few brief moments, they are transported away from worries about exams, boyfriends, school gangs, fashion, essays or emails. It’s just them and the music.

Why this concern over relevance anyway? Why can’t classical music just be enjoyable, moving, terrifying, thrilling, transcendental, beautiful, staggering, heart-breaking, cheeky, humorous, thought-provoking or threatening? Pop music may use the language of the young, refer to Twitter, video games and clubs but it is the toilet paper of the music world: a one-use item. It is relevant today, gone tomorrow. Classical music, by contrast, is vellum – it might take a bit of blood to produce, but will be around long after the toilet paper has disintegrated.

The brilliant Benjamin Grosvenor (very much not wearing a white wig)

And the, ahem, toilet paper

The whole debate will be available to view at

Ruddigore, Gilbert and Sullivan – Q&A

You’ve heard of The Mikado, you know all the words to The Pirates of Penzance. But Ruddigore? What the ruddy heck is that one all about? Alex Young’s production of this lesser-known G&S operetta opens on 11 April on the Battersea Barge. Theatrigirl spoke to company manager, Matt Crowe, to find out more.

Gilbert and Sullivan

Why did you choose to put on Ruddigore?
It is a relatively unknown and underperformed Gilbert and Sullivan for unknown reasons. We saw it as a perfect opportunity to impose our very specific style on to what is usually quite a conventional genre.

How have you brought your own interpretation to this production?
The cast play both male and female parts, there is double and even triple casting, the cast are their own band, we showcase our very own quirky choreography. It’s a larger than life interpretation. We create a world where we, a band of Victorian players, are putting on a series of lectures that are best illustrated through the medium of song and highly eloquent scenes.

Why are you performing the show in such an unusual venue – the Battersea Barge?
It is a very special, intimate venue that lends itself excellently to our style of performance and direction. Rather than just using the stage we are using the whole venue as a dramatic space. Plus, being afloat mid performance does give it some novelty!

People can be snooty about Gilbert and Sullivan – where do you think they fit into the world of performing arts and why are they still worth performing today?
Simply, the music is consistently beautiful, energetic and characterful and the lyrics are breathtakingly witty. Those who can resist their charms are to be respected!The model into which the shows fit are so generous that you can interpret and mould them into any which way you please – a luxury for producers and directors.

You say the company not only sing and dance but are their own band – what do you mean?
The company frequently pick up the nearest flute, ukulele, oboe or cello to hand and join in with the piano during songs – in aid of the drama.

How have you funded the production?
We have funded it ourselves. We have found it very difficult to find funding in light of the present arts cuts and economic climate.

Why should people come and see it?
It is a new, invigorating and creative interpretation which grants the music and lyrics the respect it deserves. Keeping true to the bones of the show and fleshing it out in our own eccentric style. All the cast are graduates from The Royal Academy of Music. The show promises to be of an extremely high standard and stuffed with laughs.

Royal 10 Productions’ Ruddigore runs at the Battersea Barge 11- 14 April, 8pm.

The Met at the IMAX: Opera on the big screen

A couple of weeks ago I went to The Met.

Well, almost. What I actually saw was a live transmission of their production of Gluck’s Ipigénie en Tauride, conducted by Patrick Summers and directed by Stephen Wadsworth, in London’s BFI IMAX cinema. Although I am always an advocate of anything that takes opera to a wider audience, I was anticipating something that very much felt like a broadcast, not a live performance.

But I was pleasantly surprised. The BFI and The Met in their series of opera broadcasts have created something which is as close as possible to attending a live performance – without the cost of the trans-Atlantic plane fare. As you walk into the IMAX cinema the crowd noise from The Met and the sounds of the orchestra tuning up are played into the auditorium in London so you feel immersed in the live performance before it even starts.

It was a matinee in New York which meant the performance started in the UK at the very respectable time of 6pm. And as the leisurely afternoon audience took their seats across the pond, we settled down in the comfy seats of the IMAX in England. And the curtain rose.

And I had never seen anything like it. I am used to the sparse sets of ENO or the modern-dress productions at Covent Garden. In fact, even Glyndbourne wasn’t as lavish as the staging before me now. The opera is set in a temple dedicated to the goddess Diana: there was an enormous statue of the Goddess, a sacrificial altar, torches burning and the performance opened with the Godess herself descending from the roof to whisk Iphigénie away from her father. (He was trying to sacrifice her. Just a normal day in Ancient Greece). Even the fake blood looked expensive.

The cast were phenomenal – Susan Graham in the title role was just the right side of hysterical and Plácido Domingo and Paul Groves as her brother Oreste and his friend Pylade, respectively, were in fine voice. This was even more impressive as an announcement before the curtain went up told us they were all suffering from a bad bout of flu.

What impressed me most about the broadcast, however, was not the singing, the sumptuous set or the fake blood. But the fact that immediately the curtain fell on the first Act, the three leads toddled over to Natalie Dessay (who is a stunning soprano in her own right) to be interviewed about how the evening was going and their approach to the opera. This was, let’s not forget, in the middle of the performance, when you might have thought they wanted to lie down in a darkened room or at least go over the arias in the next Act in their head. But here they were looking relaxed, laughing and chatting away to millions of viewers. Well, I suppose it’s just another day at the office for them.


The next broadcast from the Met is on April 9 and is Rossini’s Le Comte Ory starring Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez

Theatrigirl’s debut on the (Guardian) stage (blog)

A piece wot I wrote on Prisons and playwrights appeared today on the Guardian stage blog.

prison bars

Anna Nicole the opera – a BRAvura performance

Anna NicoleThe real Anna Nicole

As I took my seat for the very first public preview of ‘Anna Nicole’, I noticed something was different in the Royal Opera House. In place of the usual lion and unicorn on the stage curtain there were two bikini-clad body builders. And the Royal shield had been replaced with a laughing picture of the opera’s eponymous character – Anna Nicole Smith. Usually red with gold embroidery, the curtains were now pink with a border of pouting lips. She would have loved this, I thought.

On Saturday morning, the ROH allowed a small audience – mostly students –in for a rehearsal/run-through of their much-talked-about new work. With music from Mark-Anthony Turnage – who passes for a bad boy, as classical composers go – and a libretto from Richard Thomas (of Jerry Springer the Opera fame), Anna Nicole was never going to be a low-key affair. And unsurprisingly the press have loved the story so far – playboy model, billionaire’s wife, drug addict…opera.

Royal Opera House Anna Nicole

Eva-Maria Westbroek

The singer tasked with bringing this unorthodox life to the stage is Eva-Maria Westbroek. And she is brilliant. She has nailed the Texas drawl (nice is “nahce”; life, “lahfe”) and manages to make Anna silly but sympathetic. The first time we see her she is reclining in a giant gold armchair. She leans forward and whisper-sings the words “I wanna blow you all…I wanna blow you all…a kiss.” Which sets the tone for what follows.

Richard Thomas’ libretto is shocking – as you might expect from one of the creators of Jerry Springer the Opera – but it is also very funny and moving in places. This is a nice clean, family blog, so I’m not going to repeat the x-rated phrases, but suffice it to say that I was shocked – and I’ve studied 17th-century pornography. One aria sung by Anna is entirely made up of different words for breasts. And just when you think Thomas has exhausted the possibilities, another ten ring out in Westbroek’s rich soprano before declaring to her plastic surgeon “Supersize me!”

Everything about this production is over the top – but it had to be. How else could a stage show have hoped to recreate Anna Nicole Smith’s firework of a life? She came from the poorest of the poor, married one of the richest men in the world, had ENORMOUS breasts and died young of a drugs overdose. Subtlety is not what is called for.Anna Nicole Smith opera

But you never feel that the opera is laughing at her. Yes, she’s a bit dippy, yes, she clearly married for money. But Turnage and Thomas make Anna Nicole into a resourceful woman: not proud of her life choices, but not seeing any alternatives. As she sings: “I made some bad choices, some worse choices and then ran outta choices”. She is more a victim of circumstance than anything more sinister.

The baddy, in this version of the tale (and as the characters keep stressing, this is only one version), is her lawyer, Stern, played without lazy caricature by Gerald Finley. The entire cast are excellent (and this was only a rehearsal!) but Alan Oke as Anna Nicole’s billionaire husband, J Howard Marshall II, is particularly funny. His entrance is one of the production’s stand-out moments (I won’t spoil it…)

Most importantly though, there is nothing mawkish or voyeuristic about Turnage’s opera. It doesn’t feel like wealthy, opera-goers gawping at a young woman’s car crash life – which it could so easily have been. Instead, we get a wry, witty look at the lure of money, fame and the American dream. Sure, it’s rude – the lap dancers redefine the term flexible and the f word is splattered like [rude simile censored] across the score. But Turnage and Thomas have created an opera which takes a hard look at greed, morality, poverty and ambition – Anna Nicole’s life is just the vehicle.

The Truth in Double Falsehood

Double Falsehood lost ShakespeareOn 9 September, 1653, a London publisher – one Humphrey Moseley – entered a batch of plays in the Stationers’ Register including ‘The History of Cardenio by Mr Fletcher and Shakespeare’. But no more is heard of such a play until, in 1727, a version of the story reappears under the title Double Falsehood or the Distrest Lovers.

The writer, Lewis Theobald, claimed that Double Falsehood was a ‘revised and adapted’ version of Fletcher and Shakespeare’s Cardenio – manuscripts of which he claimed to own. Unfortunately for posterity, the “original” manuscript of Cardenio was housed in the library of Covent Garden Playhouse – which burned down in 1808. All that is left of this lost Shakespeare is Theobald’s revised version – and a lot of speculation.

Last year, Arden controversially decided to include it in their Complete Works – and now the play is being performed in London at the Union Theatre, for the first time in at least 164 years.

The media fuss around the “new” Shakespeare is misleading – academics have always known about the existence of Theobald’s script. Indeed, my copy of The Oxford Shakespeare, first published in 1988, refers to the play, but dismisses it as ‘no more than an interesting curiosity’.

Union Theatre

Double Falsehood at The Union Theatre

Phil Willmott, who is directing Double Falsehood at The Union Theatre, is refreshingly realistic about the play: “I would never claim that Double Falsehood is a masterpiece but it does tell us things about Shakespeare’s psyche and when we see it, we can see echoes of other famous works.”

The central character of the play is Violante, who is raped by Henriquez early on. Henriquez then falls in love with another woman – Leonara – who also happens to be loved by his friend, Julio. Violante pursues Henriquez, determined that he should marry her, after having raped her. It is, as Willmott acknowledges, a plot which sits awkwardly with modern sensibilities: “Central to it there’s a very unpalatable premise that a woman is raped and she spends the rest of the play pursuing the rapist because she’s going to force him to marry her. When you read it on the page you think ‘this is outrageous!’ And in previews some people have been shocked by this but in actual fact when you break it down, what choice does she have? She could start a woman’s refuge, or marry a shepherd, but actually her best prospect is to pursue this aristocrat.”


As You Like It

One strong argument for unearthing this largely overlooked work is the light it may shed on other plays by Shakespeare: it shares plot points with, for example, King Lear – a good son and a bad son – and As You Like It – girls dressing as boys and escaping to the wilderness.

But the language – ay there’s the rub. If Shakespeare did have a hand in this play, he wasn’t at his best as a writer: “It’s very evocative, it’s very dramatic,” but Phil readily admits “there are no soaring, poetic flights of imagery. The lark doesn’t ascend to Heaven’s gates at any point.” But he thinks Shakespeare’s fingerprint is evident in another aspect of the text: “there’s terrific psychological insight in the language – more so than you would get from your standard Jacobean tragedy or comedy. [The language] does always beautifully capture the thought patterns and the processes and the journeys that the characters are going on.”

This is all academic. As the production’s designer, Javier de Frutos, rightly points out – the play needs to be put on if the question of authenticity is ever to be settled. “You cannot open the debate of whether or not it is Shakespeare by leaving it on the page – a play doesn’t exist on the page. As creators, we have the obligation to put it on the stage for the debate to open. It’s worth putting the play on just for that.”

Willmott has directed, he tells me, 11 or 12 other Shakespeare plays – so how does this work compare? “It feels like doing a piece of new writing,” answers Willmott immediately, “because nothing comes with any clutter or baggage, there’s no expectations so you approach the script as you would a piece of new writing and that feels very fresh and exciting.”

Both Willmott and de Frutos agree that directing Shakespeare can be terrifying: de Frutos admits he felt “paralysed” in the past by what he calls the “Shakespeare police”. Everyone has an opinion about the established Shakespeare plays, whereas with Double Falsehood, they were given the theatrical equivalent of a blank page. The pressure was off to find a new angle, to give it a new setting: there was no need for what Willmott calls a “gimmick”. “I think the key thing is that we were determined there would just be the simplicity of the language and the storytelling, and that we wouldn’t butter it up with our take on it. People who are coming to see it want to experience the play, they don’t want to see Phil Willmott and Javier de Frutos’ version of the play.”

So it’s up to you. Whatever the hype says, Willmott and de Frutos have not set Double Falsehood up as a lost masterpiece of the bard. Part of the fun of the project – both for them and for us – is that the audience can create their own theories as to the authorship. With this production, they are just facilitating and adding their twopennyworth to an ongoing debate. As Phil explains: “Academics have had their fun and now we’re standing [the play] up and seeing how it works as a piece of theatre.”


Double Falsehood is on at The Union Theatre until 12 February.

This article first appeared on

The opera audience: a rare two-headed beast

During the interval of a recent production of Mozart’s Cos­­ì fan tutte, my obligatory interval ice cream was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder.

“Can you please explain to me why everyone in the audience is either in their 80s or 20s?” asked the woman behind me.

What a stupid question, I thought. Had she never been to the opera before? But of course, she had a point. The modern opera audience is a strange two-headed beast, a Cerberus of the stalls: rich, older people still make up the core but the less wealthy under-30s are increasingly present. And opera houses are tying themselves in knots trying to please this pushmi pullyu of an audience.

Dr Dolittle's Pushmi Pullyu

The Pushmi Pullyu

This odd situation has come about because of opera houses’ fascination with the young: their borderline-unhealthy obsession with attracting the under-30s. Every opera house in Britain – and the world over – has ploughed vast sums into projects and “initiatives” (shudder) in an attempt to “widen participation.”

Only recently the Lyric Opera house in Chicago announced that operatic diva Renée Fleming was to become its first ever creative consultant. Fleming’s role, according to the venue, will primarily be to broaden its audience, come up with education projects and work on their web marketing strategy. In other words, try to get the young’uns in. Which is all well and good, but at what cost to opera?

Opera is not the most accessible of art forms – it is often in a foreign language, the emotions expressed are usually highly exaggerated and the plots rarely dip below the ridiculous. What’s more, characters like Mozart’s Dorabella, who professes undying love to her fiancé one minute and then sort of forgets him – ‘cos she’s a girl – and gets engaged to his best friend, don’t wash with modern, post-feminist audiences. And don’t get me started on Tosca or Isolde.

But there’s no point apologising for this: opera plots are only a vehicle for the music. That’s where the real drama happens: the music, if you’ll pardon the expression, is where it’s at.

Castel Sant Angelo

Opera’s pleasures spring from its difficulties. Trying to deny this does the form a disservice: that’s why last year’s Royal Opera House project to make a Twitter opera achieved little more than a rash of headlines and why terms like “initiatives to widen participation” make me want to follow Tosca in her leap off the Castel Sant Angelo. No self-respecting young person would be fooled by these attempts to be “cool” – the operatic equivalent of a mid-life crisis.

A good opera production will appeal to any discerning culture vulture – young or old.

Simple, gimic-free, well-staged productions will do more to broaden opera audiences than any futuristic, circus-inspired, gangsta-rap version of La Traviata.

By all means make the ticket prices affordable, advertise productions on facebook and Twitter. But don’t compromise on the product. Opera, like theatre, is a great art form and opera houses shouldn’t feel they have to apologise for it.

Exclusive interview with Enron writer Lucy Prebble

Mark-to-market, hedging, special purpose entities and actors in dinosaur masks. Lucy Prebble’s play Enron confounded expectations and made the complex, number-driven world of global finance dramatic, comprehensible and even funny.

Enron opened at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester to ecstatic reviews in the summer of 2009, propelling Prebble to fame. The play transferred to the Royal Court, then to the West End and has just completed a national tour.

Lucy Prebble Enron

photography by Jordan Bassett

When we meet in a small coffee shop in Soho it’s hard to believe that the bright, brash West End show, came from the pen of such a polite and composed young woman – but that’s what makes Prebble so fascinating. Her main aim in writing the show was not, she tells me, to pass judgement or explain the complex financial camouflage that brought the company down – although it did both of these – but simply not to be boring.

“I felt really passionately that it would be very easy to write a play that says ‘we all know how this ends, we all know it’s terrible, aren’t all these people bad.’ We decided very early on it mustn’t be boring at any moment, because that’s what people expect of a play about corporate finance. But it is really fun, to work on a trading floor – it is really glamorous and it is really really profitable if you do it well. And those are all things human beings are drawn to and to pretend that we’re not is what perpetuates the cycle.”

Anyone who has seen the play will recall the “Raptors” – business entities which gobbled up Enron’s toxic debt. “It seemed completely appropriate,” explained Prebble, “to have dangerous financial instruments – financial instruments that have hurt people and broken their lives – come alive and be portrayed as vicious creatures, in this case velociraptors. So once you’ve decided that you’re essentially going to dramatise the theoretical and make it real, you’re already entering a slightly absurdist world, that’s not dull.”

EnronEnron opened at the height of the global credit crunch – although Prebble has always insisted this was down to luck rather than a gift of foresight. But she has become the go-to-girl for scripts on finance. “The last thing I want to be is the “money” girl or the girl who writes about finance. I find it really interesting and I wrote a play about it but now I find other stuff interesting.”

The stuff she finds interesting is, by her own admission, quite “full-on” – she’s currently working on a film about the Stasi and another play about humans used in drug trials. But what drew her to Enron was, she says, the macho aspect of the story.

“You can’t avoid the link between testosterone and risk-taking – it’s medically proven. In the locker-room world of the trading floor, you’re as big as your bonus is. It is quite phallic and aggressive and that’s part of the fun of it. The masculinity of the world never consciously entered my mind although I’m certain that subconsciously I was drawn to it because of that.”

When I suggest a parallel with what seems to be a male-dominated world of theatre writing, Prebble pulls me up. “You’ll find a lot of women writers – in the theatre – who do one or two plays and then aren’t seen much more. The reasons for that aren’t necessarily related to gender specifically but more practical. You’ll find a huge amount of women who started off in theatre but move into film and television because it’s much more financially rewarding and it’s a child friendly profession. Women writers are still writing, they’re just writing in a different medium, in a way that suits them better.”

Secret Diary of a Call Girl Billie PiperPrebble knows a thing or two about the medium of TV: she created the series Secret Diary of a Call Girl after coming across the Belle de Jour blog. The Belle character, who chose to become a high-paid prostitute and document her exploits online, proved as controversial as she was popular and Prebble, who left the series after writing the first 18 episodes, admits she had trouble with the character and the kind of scripts she was being asked to write.

“I left the series because I felt that, unfortunately, I wasn’t really being allowed to write what I wanted to write – more ambitious, complex drama. That’s the problem with Television really: yes you get paid more and yes you probably get more consistent work but you’re really not in control of your product at all.”

And this is a constant dilemma for Prebble: writing for TV is consistent but often comes without recognition; writing for theatre is respected but comes with intense scrutiny. After her first play, The Sugar Syndrome, was put on Upstairs at the Royal Court, Prebble struggled with a lack of self-confidence and after she had a play rejected in what she calls “the worst meeting I’d ever had in my life”, she turned to television.

“In TV no one knows who writes their favourite shows, no one even knows who’s written their favourite films, so I found that strangely helped me because I didn’t feel a lot of pressure on me personally. I felt like I was contributing to something that was bigger than me. Bizarrely, even though theatre’s the place where you get the most respect as a writer, it’s the place where you also get the most attention, the focus. And if you’re not the sort of person who necessarily wants that, it can be quite intimidating.”

As she talks it becomes clear that although Prebble has had enormous success as a writer, she has also been through the mill a bit to get there. She speaks of the loneliness of the writer, her self-doubt and the huge amount of will-power needed to get something on the page. “Writing is honestly, a depressing experience and it’s an act of getting over your own lack of self-confidence to write something. Mostly I have to get myself to a place of such self-disgust in how depressed I am about how little I’ve written that I’m then forced into writing something.”

But then, I suppose no one ever said being a critically acclaimed writer was easy.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

What do Equus, The Romans in Britain, recent productions of King Lear and Edward Bond’s The Fool have in common?

Daniel Radcliffe naked in Equus

They all featured people in the altogether, their birthday suit: nude. But is it necessary? What does nudity achieve on stage and is there an argument that asking actors to appear naked is, at best, objectifying them, at worst, exploitation?

As the theatre critic for a local paper in Willesden and Kilburn, I saw four out of six of the plays which made up the Cock Tavern Theatre’s Edward Bond season. Two of these featured nudity and I began to ask myself why playwrights and directors do it.

To take the Bond example first: Bond’s particular shtick is showing extreme violence on stage in an attempt to shock the audience into recognising the violence in our own society. The nudity is part of this. There is no question that nudity in Bond’s work is to do with exploitation. In The Fool, an old vicar is stripped first of his riches, then his outer clothes, then his under garments (this was set in Victorian times, so we’re talking long johns) and finally his under pants.

Ben Crispin as John Clare in The Cock Tavern's The Fool The character was being abused and exploited. But what about the actor? And remember that this was staged in the tiny Cock Tavern Theatre (let’s just get the pun about this being an apt place to stage plays involving nudity out of the way now). There was nowhere to hide for the actor, the audience were three metres away at most and there was nothing subtle about the lighting of this scene. I wondered whether the actor had known about this scene when he’d auditioned. And how much he was getting paid.

While the nudity here didn’t feel gratuitous, it was excruciating and made the audience’s position feel hugely inappropriate, heartless and voyeuristic. And perhaps this was Bond’s point – but it made me distinctly nervous about going to another play by him. And if I hadn’t been reviewing the season, I probably would have avoided the later shows. This particular scene felt too real – we weren’t watching people pretending to strip an old man naked and then pinch him all over. They were actually doing this.

But nudity needn’t be harrowing. Back in 2006, I saw Sam West’s production of Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain at the Crucible. What seemed like 10 completely naked men cart-wheeled across the stage, frolicked (there is no other word for it) in an enormous swimming pool and, aside from the notorious gay rape scene, generally had a whale of a time. The actors seemed to be liberated and there was no hint of awkwardness. This was a celebration of the human form.

One acting coach is firmly of the view that nudity on stage is exploitative and he makes a good case, but Michael Billington wrote this persuasive piece when Daniel Radcliffe was appearing in Equus some years ago, suggesting that nudity should just be one tool in a director’s kit (!) and nothing to fill newspaper columns about.

Personally, at the moment, I feel that if I ever see another naked, cowering man on stage, it will be too soon. What about you?

A Fearsome Foursome of Fausts

London has become a city of damned souls.  And one damned soul, in particular: Dr John Faust is everywhere.Faust Young Vic by Vesturport and Reykjavík City Theater Faust’s tale is one of ambition, hell-fire and damnation: since medieval times his story has fascinated and horrified.

Goethe grappled with this anti-hero throughout his life, Marlowe made it into his most famous play and composers Berlioz and Gounod set it to music. More recently, the Fates have conspired to saturate 21st-century London with Faust’s tragedy. Why do we poor sinners keep coming back to it?

BBC Radio3 were the first to jump into the inferno with a production whose ambition was matched only by its protagonist’s. In September, Sam West starred as Goethe’s Faust opposite Toby Jones as Mephistopheles; Derek Jacobi and Anna Maxwell Martin also featured. ENO is currently staging Gounod’s five-act opera (based on Goethe’s text) and the Young Vic has an unorthodox circus production, again based loosely on Goethe.

Dr Faustus with MephistophelesThe Faust story first appeared in the Faustbuch in 1587 and was initially popular as a tale of damnation: a sixteenth-century scandal story. But if the original medieval tale was one of religious finger-wagging, Goethe had a completely different agenda. His Faust is an idealist: like Marlowe’s creation, Goethe’s hero seeks knowledge and self-realization.

Good and evil, black and white, innocence and guilt: Goethe and Marlowe blurred these previously impermeable boundaries. In doing so they created dramatic texts which are more relevant now than ever.

Marlowe, who was accused of being an atheist*(among other things), had little interest in black and white morality. Instead, his play is a tragedy: his hero is not evil, but human; the tragedy springs not from an evil soul, but Faust’s hunger for knowledge.

The relentless quest for knowledge is familiar to us. Modern microscopes and telescopes have opened new visual worlds, scientists have delved into the workings of our own bodies and developments in health care mean we are living longer than ever.

Only last month, Stephen Hawking declared that science has displaced God. Marlowe’s Renaissance man would be eminently at home in our world of scepticism, science and selfishness. Faust’s desire to be young again (in Goethe’s reading) is a pre-figuring of our own society’s desire to look youthful. Marlowe’s Faust asks to meet Helen (of the long legs) of Troy – the most beautiful woman ever to have lived: of course he didn’t have the modern men’s mag, Playboy (…on second thoughts, I won’t add a hyperlink there), to turn to.

Faust is a thoroughly modern man: disillusioned with life, nihilistic and solipsistic. His story’s current vogue is no coincidence: modern audiences identify with Faust, his temptations are our own, his desires are ones we recognize. The chilling lesson for modern audiences is that we no longer need God to damn us: we already do that ourselves.

*in the Baines note: “A note Containing the opinion of one Christopher Marly Concerning his Damnable Judgment of Religion, and scorn of gods word”