‘Satan in a Savile Row Suit’, Patrick Marber’s leading man is devious, debauched and morally bankrupt, without a single care for anything except the pursuit of his own pleasure and without a single scruple of conscience for all the people he hurts along the ways. He is all these things, a man we are warned right at the top of the show not to love, a man with no soul and seemingly no heart to save even himself. But he’s also irresistible, living, by his own admission, as a man in his purest natural state, away from the façade of modern life, driven entirely by instinct and want and desire. He is Don Juan.
We are fascinated by villains, by people who live to extremes in a way none of us would dare. We baulk at the outrageousness of their lifestyle while inwardly admiring the sheer bravado of their choices. And deep down it’s all about our relationship with morality, where it comes from – either socially constructed or religiously imposed – and how it changes as society evolves, which explains the continual revivals of plays about Don Juan and his counterpart Faustus, and it is no coincidence in our more than troubled modern times that both have been seen in London’s playhouses numerous times in the past couple of years.
Marber wrote Don Juan in Soho a decade ago and has updated it slightly for this wonderful new production which has its press night at the Wyndhams Theatre tomorrow. Before we meet the man himself the audience is offered a none-to-flattering character sketch by his Butler/ Chauffeur, Stan, who waits in the lobby while “DJ” is in the penthouse with a Croatian model. Cheating on his wife of only two weeks, this is a man whose appetites are rapacious, having worked his way through three women a day for twenty years, what follows are a series of comic scenarios as Don Juan pursues his need for wine and women. But high on drugs in Soho one night he thinks a statue has come to life warning him he has one more day to live. Will he repent at last?
This new production, which Marber also directs, is a riot, full of life and full of fight. This Don Juan is not a man who apologises or kowtows to social influence but fights every second for his right to do whatever he pleases, and between scenes Marber fills the stage with swirling projections, light, music and colour, with images of Soho flashing onto the screens. For Don Juan this is his life, a constant sensory experience, the only thing he craves to keep him alive.
Yet Anna Fleischel’s multi-purpose set brings out a battle between old and new, tradition and modernity, tapping into a single melancholy moment as Don Juan half regrets that Soho is not the decadent place it once was. The worn marbled effect of the tomb-like rooms reflects Don Juan’s moral decay and the ultimate journey to the grave that awaits us all. Even in the park scene he is surrounded by mildewed benches and cold grey statues. His experiences may be explosively colourful but when they stop, all that’s left is a dark emptiness – a truth about himself Don Juan never wants to face but also accepts.
Tennant’s glorious performance leaves us in no doubt that Don Juan is not a man to feel any sympathy for, someone who will do anything to anyone so long as he has a good time – no regrets, no guilt and absolutely no shame. This is an interesting role for Tennant because one of his hallmarks as an actor is finding the humanity and sensitivity in his characters, creating a layered understanding of why they behave as they do. But Don Juan is without those kinds of depths, he is a lothario living entirely on the surface and has no moral compass of any kind, which is a different kind of challenge for actor who usually conveys depth so well. Instead he revels in the gluttony of Don Juan’s sexual escapades with some beautifully timed comic moments, particularly in a notorious but shockingly hilarious scene in a hospital waiting room which has to be seen to believed.
And there’s lots to admire in the pure certainty of Tennant’s leading man; he doesn’t swagger artfully so much as stumble from each lust-fuelled incident to the next, often looking wrecked from his activities but unable to stop himself or others from pursing the next opportunity however immoral or inappropriate. And Tennant lures you in before pulling the rug from under you – as Stan warns us he would – with some deeply dubious games like attempting to bribe a devout man to sully the name of his God. There is some nuance of course and Don Juan clearly fears his foretold death but not enough to go against his own nature and change his lifestyle – however unpleasant, he is always entirely conscious of what he is and unyieldingly true to it.
But best of all is the complete blankness with which he receives the opinions of others, particularly his wife and father, who tell him in detail how badly he has behaved and the pain he has caused. Lesser actors would have to prove they were reacting with a head shake or eye roll, but Tennant receives each lambast without expression and perfectly still, as if every word were flowing right over him without making the slightest ripple. It’s very skilled work to convey so much without a flicker, but none of it touches him and it speaks volumes about his lack of morality.
Marber has added some great up-to-date references to Trump which get several knowing laughs, while Tennant has a couple of fabulous comic monologues to rant about the state of the world and people’s need to be seen and heard at all times doing the most mundane things. These are few, and perhaps are not entirely plot centred, but they are an excoriating indictment of modern life and when Tennant is in full flight you don’t want to be anywhere else.
Adrian Scarborough is the perfect foil as Don Juan’s long-standingly exasperated companion and documenter of his many amours. Stan is our way into the production and in some sense its moral heart as he tries to extricate himself from Don Juan’s employ. Overwhelmed by his Master’s deceits. Scarborough shows us that the marriage, contracted merely for seductive purposes and then cast aside, feels like a final straw but that Stan is more than a cipher for Don Juan’s story, having his own frustrated desires and demands, unable to retrieve the £27,000 in owed wages or start a family. Stan talks directly to the audience on a couple of occasions warning us not to be drawn in, but at the same time Stan is us, repelled and annoyed but endlessly fascinated by Don Juan’s seductive charms.
The surrounding cast taking on a number of roles is more mixed and at times quite stagey. There are plenty of women who pass through Don Juan’s life during the play, none of whom really make their mark, which seems to be a deliberate choice, reflecting his own lack of engagement with them. Danielle Vitalis as DJ’s wife Elvira has the difficult task of playing earnest and innocent in a world of louche so can seem a little stilted, but Gawn Grainger has a small, enjoyable role as Don Juan’s buffoon parent disgusted by his son but as easily fooled by his entreaties as everyone else in a very fine comic scene.
Marber’s production feels like the cousin of Jamie Lloyd’s Faustus from 2016 with Kit Harrington that tackled similar themes about morality, death and the individual in modern times, but with a deliberately distinctive visual style that was hugely divisive. It’s probably reasonable to say if that wasn’t your cup of tea, then this might not be either and it’s likely to split the critics. As a health warning there’s lots of swearing, drug-taking, sex, violence and fantasy elements including a surprising rickshaw moment that anyone who’s seen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on stage might appreciate. It was clear from the interval chat that some people found the content difficult but if this sounds like a perfect recipe for a night at the theatre then this is the show for you.
Don Juan in Soho is crude, lewd, shocking, morally skewed, vicious and frankly lots of fun. At times genuinely hilarious, innovative and exuberant, it’s a show that zips along with its protagonists need to keep moving, but there is a shadow of nostalgia, of a happier past that cannot be reclaimed that keeps this from being all farce and fluff. Tennant’s Don Juan may be repugnant and unsalvageable, and despite all the warnings you don’t want to love him… you just do.
Don Juan in Soho is at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 10 June and tickets start at £10 for standing seats. An age recommendation of 16+ has been added to the show and most seats at the Wyndham’s offer a good view. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1
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