Faust and furious

An updated production of Faustus equates Marlowe's anti-hero with the controversial Chapman brothers

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 awe 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 bro-thers mask. More profoundly, the juxtaposition of the two stories raises fascinating questions about how notions of what is sacred in our society have shifted.

"How far do the commissioners of avant-garde iconoclasm wish their clowns to go?" asked Jake Chapman in an essay examining his and Dinos's decision to paint puppy and clown heads on to Goya's chilling depictions of suffering. It is a typical Chapman comment, seeming to bite the credulous hand that feeds at the same time as raising questions about the effect of the brothers' actions. For all the shrieks of outrage and cynicism that - perhaps correctly - have greeted the Chapmans' decision to deface the artist who had so deeply influenced other works of theirs, it marks a significant advance in territory for the pair, going even beyond Hell. It suggests, to an extent, that the body is losing its potency as a site for cultural debate - not least because images of war on the news now show more horrific physical violations than any provocative tactic dreamt up in a London studio - and artists such as the Chapmans are needing to respond to the more complex morality of our times.

Goold supports the idea that the Chapmans made a significant development with Insult to Injury. He thinks that their act was comparable to Faustus's decision to sell his soul to the Devil, not for the tabloid-friendly reason that they both therefore deserve to go to hell, but because "both had reached the end of a line. Faustus has explored all other avenues of Renaissance thinking, and then rejected them. The Chapmans have endlessly rethought Goya's work and, maybe, needed to do this to go beyond him." In the first Elizabethan era, therefore, Faustus jettisoned God and turned to the Devil. In the modern Elizabethan era, the Chapmans take the iconoclastic move of defacing Goya. Culturally, the act seems to carry the full impact of blasphemy - an implication pushed to its limits when an Afghan media student compares their actions to the Taliban's bombing of the Bamiyan Buddhas. "They see beauty of world, beauty they cannot own and so they destroy it. They are devils. I see beauty in these pictures. I understand. You see nothing. You. You are a devil." Goold concedes that because of the political climate, it was not enough to have the Chapman brothers' assertion of "the inadequacy of the artistic response in the face of suffering . . . we wanted someone who had been through a Goya-like experience to respond to what they had done".

Aleks Sierz, the author of In-Yer-Face Theatre, which chronicles the young playwrights who emerged in the mid-1990s, agrees that we have moved into an era in which ideas of what is acceptable are shifting, and that playwrights and directors are needing to respond. He thinks this is not just due to the war, however, but "because taboos are always receding and intensifying. The least taboo action you could depict in theatre today is anal rape because, since Shopping and Fucking, there have been several enactions of this on stage." He believes, however, that the body will always be able to provoke in unexpected ways, even when we are bored of staged buggery and penis puppetry. He cites Ron Mueck's Dead Dad in the Saatchi collection, which "I found unacceptably intense, because we never see the naked dead bodies of our parents".

Whatever people's reactions are to the Chapman brothers' encounter with the Faustus legend, both art and theatre must continually play with the forbidden. Whether it's jokes about trailer trash in Jerry Springer: the opera or the baby-stoning scene in Edward Bond's Saved, art is worthless if it doesn't provoke. After all, even the ancient Greeks wrote about child murder and drunken women tearing men to pieces. When you think about it, controversy is the oldest trick in the book.

Faustus is at the Royal and Derngate Theatres, Northampton (01604 624811) until 20 November. There are no performances on 8 or 15 November

Rachel Halliburton is a freelance critic and journalist