Don Juan gets everywhere, doesn’t he? He’s in the poetry of Byron, the music of Mozart, the drama of Shaw; he fascinated writers as varied as Alexander Pushkin, Albert Camus and Jane Austen. He first appeared in a play by Spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina in the early 1600s. Where would be without Wikipedia? However, it’s the hero (if that’s the right word) of Molière’s 1665 work Don Juan or The Feast with the Statue (catchy title) from whom Patrick Marber has created his modern-day re-working of the legendary libertine. Reading the synopsis of Molière’s original – I have to confess, gentle reader, I’m not entirely au fait with it – for the most part Mr Marber has done a really inventive job of bringing forward the events of 350 years ago into the present day, whilst respecting the original characters and plotline. So, if you, like me, thought all the stuff about a talking statue following them around Soho was nonsensical guff, you can blame Molière!
Perhaps I’ve got a little ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the story. Don Juan (or DJ, as he is here) has just married virgin bride Elvira – up till now she’d devoted her life to nursing in places like Syria – and, having now deflowered her, has dropped her like the proverbial ton of bricks and instantly gone on to pastures new. Elvira’s rather righteous family are horrified – and Elvira is none too best pleased – but DJ looks on marriage as an occupational hazard and has no compunction about seeking out the next totty – indeed lining them up as he goes. He’s followed by his servant Stan. He’s a faithful servant, although he detests almost everything about his master’s lifestyle; yet he’s beguiled by it, and is always sniffing around in case any loose benefits might get thrown in his direction. They rarely do, but hope springs eternal. We observe DJ move from scene to scene, making fully planned assaults from woman to woman, some of whom need less encouragement than others. His total lack of morality never worries him – anyone who suffers as a result of his escapades is mere collateral damage. And does he get away with it? Well, Molière’s Don Juan gets his comeuppance by going to hell – that’s literally straight to hell, on stage, in fire, not passing go, not collecting £200. I can’t see why Marber’s version should get off scot-free.
Whilst it’s a very good re-working of the original story, the production seems to have been lured into a stylistic fantasy that sometimes does more to confuse than to enlighten. Scenes start or end with the appearance of masked characters, like some form of Greek chorus; but there’s no chorus in Molière and there’s nothing Greek about Don Juan. Swirling hallucinatory patterns appear on the walls and the ceilings which I suppose might be linked with DJ’s and Stan’s drugtaking habits but they don’t reveal anything extra about the plot or characters. The minor characters join together occasionally to perform a bit of song and dance; and I sat there wondering, why? Just, why? To prove that they can sing and dance? They’re a West End cast, I would expect no less. It all seems part of some stylistic obfuscation that I think weakens the savagery of Don Juan and his wicked ways, and consequently softens the message of the play.
I booked to see this show absolutely ages ago because I knew the presence of David Tennant would make it a Real Hot Ticket. And I was right! We’d only tried to see Mr Tennant once before, back in 2008 when he was leading the cast in the RSC’s Hamlet. However, our booking coincided with the time when he was off sick and the role was famously taken over by Laertes – Edward Bennett, who was brilliant. We’ve seen Mr Bennett a few times since then and he’s always a stunning performer – and the current winner of the Chrisparkle Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.
So, I was very pleased to be able to see David Tennant act in the flesh for the first time, and it’s not hard to see why people love him so much. He doth bestride the stage like a Colossus, and really knows how to milk a moment for all its worth – his under the covers sex scene with Lottie is a case in point. He has an epiphanic moment resulting in his delivering a delightful diatribe when he inveighs against all the current political and societal ills of the world – it’s a fantastic speech and he really makes the most of it, and it’s well deserving its own appreciative round of applause. Lovely comic timing, and, I think, a very good understanding of what makes Don Juan tick.
But there’s no question that the show is absolutely stolen by the brilliant performance by Adrian Scarborough as Stan. It helps that this is, in fact, a much more interesting role and it’s no surprise that this is the role originally played by Molière, who was a comic genius. What is the hold that DJ has over Stan? Why is he so enthralled to him? He freely admits he loathes and detests his behaviour. Yet there is that sneaking regard… everyone likes a bad boy, even the bad boy’s mates can’t help but respect what he can get up to, and deep down they’re jealous of his lifestyle. And of course, Stan is clinging on for the money – although you get the feeling that even without that, he’d still be there for him, making excuses and lies, hoping for titbits. Mr Scarborough adopts the perfect laconic character, moaning about him to the audience, looking about as unsexy as it’s possible to be as he stomps around in pinny, boxers and grey socks. He’s pathetic – but he’s exactly as pathetic as most the audience, so we really relate to him. Let’s face it, no one’s going to relate to DJ. It’s a beautifully bitter-sweet performance and the audience loves him.
I very much enjoyed the performance of Gawn Grainger as DJ’s dad Louis, forty years since I saw him playing Osric to Albert Finney’s Hamlet – I think we’re all getting old. Splendidly bullying, pompously indignant, but actually with a heart of gold when DJ confesses his sins. Dominique Moore gives a funny and lively performance as the feisty, demanding Lottie who’s not going to put up with crap from anyone, and I thoroughly enjoyed the way she took control of her situation – full of spunk in more ways than one. However, I have to say that both Mrs Chrisparkle and I thought a couple of the roles – no name, no pack drill – were really rather weakly underperformed, lacking vocal authority or stage charisma, which made the scenes featuring those roles drag a little.
Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining romp, even if some of it doesn’t quite work and some of it doesn’t quite make sense; you have Messrs Tennant and Scarborough as a highly entertaining double act and I’m sure they’ll continue to please the crowds until the limited season ends on 10th June.
P. S. As a completely pointless interruption to Don Juan’s final moments on earth, the whole cast get up and dance to Kiki Dee’s I Got The Music In Me and it’s an absolute blast. I loved it. And as we leave the auditorium, we do so to the serene strains of George Harrison singing My Sweet Lord. I couldn’t help but sing in the stalls. And once we were out on the street. And on our way to a bar. One doesn’t hear that song anywhere near as often as one should. Both pieces of music are 100% irrelevant to the show but are amongst its most enjoyable moments. That probably doesn’t say much for the show as a whole.
Production photos by Helen Maybanks