Don Juan in Soho
Wyndham’s Theatre, 22nd May
Get this. The programme says that since a Spanish dramatist, Tirso di Molina, first brought Don Juan to the world in around 1620 he has appeared in at least 1,800 plays, operas, novels, films and poems. And I bet he appeared as a stock character in stories before the printing presses started rolling in earnest (though I am not away that this anti-hero was a feature of Greek or Roman theatre – but they were a cultured bunch right).
So what does this tell us. That people really like and admire him? Or that an overwhelmingly patriarchal artistic community keep shoving this obnoxious prick down our throats (literally), reflecting their own wish-fulfillment fantasies? Search me. I only really know the story from Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera, Don Giovanni (extracts from which unsurprisingly bookended this production). And every time I go into a performance of that, and usually for the first couple of scenes (the rape of Donna Anna for that is what it is, the murder of the Commendatore, and Leporello’s catalogue of conquests on behalf of his master), I think why I am watching this misogynistic clap-trap.
Then Mozart’s music takes over, Don Giovanni does eventually come unstuck and, finally, gets the comeuppance that maybe he deserves. This neatly then absolves us of any approbation we may have had for our anti-hero (and indeed any sneaking admiration some might harbour). All seems resolved except that within minutes of leaving I am once again questioning how I enjoying the tale of a dissolute libertine. I know, I know don’t judge a work of art written hundreds of years ago by today’s moral compass. But what I do often wrestle with is the audience reaction to this character.
Now the play, as interpreted by Moliere, also ups the ante by presenting Don Juan, in some ways, as worthy of our respect because he represents true freedom, the right to live your life as you please. Even more so he exposes the hypocrisy of all around him. This is where Patrick Marber, in this substantial adaptation originally produced in 2006, and which he also directs, pivots his attention with, I have to say, very considerable success. Our anti-hero, now just DJ, is alive and well in contemporary Soho, alongside his put-upon side-kick, Stan.
Now the first thing to say is that David Tennant and Adrian Scarborough end up with the audience in the palm of their hands so adept are their performances. There are times when I get annoyed by David Tennant who just seems to find it all too easy. I was not as bowled over as most by his last major stage work-out in the RSC’s Richard II and some of his TV work grates. And here, at first, I felt he was just too indulgent in his portrayal. But I was wrong and quickly came round. Similarly I felt Adrian Scarborough, at first, wasn’t getting to grips with any of the reasons why Stan would put up with this sort of treatment. Again I was wrong. The power of reflected glory is clearly an overwhelming aphrodisiac for the poor chap.
The same early apprehension I felt about the actors (remember too this is also the point when I am questioning the whole set up anyway) was manifest with Patrick Marber’s text. It just seemed too simplistic at first and inclined to allow the lead actor, ( I gather this was might also have been true of Rhys Ifans in the Donmar Warehouse original production), to lazily tick off the cheap laughs. Well, again I was wrong as I think this approach means we too are quickly snared by our anti-hero’s charismatic web, which then serves to heighten the subsequent moral dualism. I have noticed this before with Mr Marber’s work. Dealer’s Choice, Closer and The Red Lion all take a bit of time to get going and his screenplay for Notes on a Scandal is similarly unhurried.
So what of the production itself. I am not sure the shoehorning in of Soho, as a symbol for London’s corrupted history, entirely works. It does give us the necessary statue in the form of King Charles II (he was of course the antidote to the cultural scourge of Puritanism). Soho also fuels a short, and not entirely relevant, piece in the programme focussed on the drunken antics of the artistic community in the 1950s and 1960s (Bacon, Thomas, Freud and hangers on). However, I think its symbolic value as the capital’s continuing den of sexual iniquity now looks a bit antiquated in a world of ubiquitous digital pornography. Anna Fleische’s modern setting and costumes, and the interpolation of dance and snatches of contemporary music (how can I not like a play that has masked dancers in white robes whirling around to Taking Heads’s Memories Can’t Wait!), does though set the perfect tone for this pursuit of gratification.
Mr Marber really cranks up the ambiguity in the scene with the beggar, here a Muslim who he forments, but fails, to blaspheme, the duping of Dad to keep the funds flowing and DJ’s climatic monologue, which I gather has been updated for this production. Here the railing against today’s grandiosity, virtue signalling and all-round attention seeking cant and humbug, induced slightly uneasier ripples of laughter through the audience when compared to the undemanding sallies at the expense of one D Trump earlier on. I’d say this is where Mr Marber really hit the mark.
So, overall, I think the writing, direction and performances richly decorate what remains, at its heart, still a very ugly construction. We are amused, we are seduced, we are instructed, we are chided for our complicity. The emptiness of hedonism that lies at the very heart of our DJ, is revealed and, ultimately, this proves his nemesis. Catharsis indeed.