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Don Juan in Soho – Wyndhams Theatre

David Tennant in Don Juan in Soho by Helen Maybanks

‘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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The Entertainer – Garrick Theatre

The Entertainer - Kenneth Branagh

2016’s spring and summer theatre seasons have been dominated by some outstanding leading female performances; from Sheridan Smith’s Funny Girl to Billy Piper’s Yerma and Helen McCrory’s Hester in The Deep Blue Sea (which gets an NT Live cinema showing this week) this is some of the best work we’ve seen in London for some time. But autumn is almost here and it’s time for our leading men to step into the spotlight. Over the next few weeks a number of highly anticipated shows will open – Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart bring their No Man’s Land tour to the Wyndhams, while Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith take on The Dresser at the Duke of York’s.

But before any of them Kenneth Branagh gives his take on John Osborne’s The Entertainer, the final play in his year-long Garrick season, which has its press night tomorrow. Set in 1956, it’s the tale of middle-aged Music Hall entertainer Archie Rice, who continues to tread the boards in a comedy end-of-the-pier show in a northern seaside town. He lives with his second wife Phoebe, their two sons and his father the renowned, and now retired, Music Hall star Billy Rice. One weekend Archie’s daughter Jean, from his first marriage, comes to visit from London and the precarious balance of illusion and deliberate ignorance that has sustained the family is shattered.

Osborne’s plays are often hard to really love and even 60 years on the brutal nature of his characters can be uncomfortable to watch. But while there’s plenty of West End theatre that will harmlessly entertain you, very little sends you out into the night troubled by what you have seen, this production of The Entertainer does just that and it’s a very good thing.

At the time Osborne wrote this play Britain was undergoing a period of considerable change as old and new values began to clash across the political and social spectrum. Rationing had only recently ended and the old Britain of Empire and showmen like Archie was essentially bankrupt. Much has been made in the pre-press about its echoes in current issues, and watching the show now its relevance to our own times, with Brexit and Scottish independence once again pitting old against new, is stark. The Union flag is a frequent motif as it was in the Music Hall, either waved in Archie’s act, representing the armed forces or projected across the back of the stage… and how complicated our own relationship with that symbol of Britain now is – it doesn’t mean quite the same thing it did two months ago. Who we are as a nation and how much we value tradition over progress are questions as important to us now as they were to Osborne in the 1950s. And what this version of The Entertainer is doing is seeing that play-out in microcosm in one family deeply affected by a future they can’t control – seem familiar?

Once again I heard another audience member call this ‘obviously dated’ which, as with the recent discussion about Present Laughter, is a misunderstanding. The Entertainer is set in the time it was written and where it feels stale is a deliberate move by Branagh and director Rob Ashford to show that Archie is a man out of his time. In fact his refined working class family worry about the future but live almost entirely in the past, recounting old stories and existing within the confines of Archie’s long out-of-date act. And, alongside the political references, like Present Laughter, it has much to say about the expiration of celebrity, how quickly it disappears and, for those like Archie, even now, clinging to a desperate C-List status is better than none at all.

Christopher Oram’s has done some excellent design work during this season but The Entertainer is one of his best, setting it in a shabby and faded Music Hall with a giant curtain dominating the back of the stage where Archie often appears with dancers to perform his routine. Brilliantly, the Rice household exists in a combined ‘backstage’ and ‘onstage’ set-up which allows Ashford to fluidly move between the home and stage scenes, with dancers neatly moving furniture into place. It makes perfect sense for them to ‘live’ in the Music Hall which has economically sustained them and shaped their lives, nicely exploited with occasional freeze-frame moments as Archie delivers his gags around them, tying the two sides of his life together.

You’ll undoubtedly hear a lot in the coming days about Olivier’s take on the central role and how Branagh compares, but undoubtedly he has made this part his own, incorporating everything he’s learned from his roles during the season to create a sad wreck of a man. His Archie is someone able to fool himself he once had everything and finding it increasingly difficult to hide the truth, an element of his Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. In many ways Archie is a version of Arthur Gosport in Harlequinade, a second-rate actor committed to the theatre, but Branagh’s Archie is only too aware of his failings, while the wonderful comic timing and joy he used to great effect in The Painkiller he warps slightly here as Archie’s show-time pieces are deliberately just out of sync or mistimed by a second to expose him.

Archie is performing almost always, especially in front of his father where jokes and stories are relayed in the same patter he uses on stage but there are wonderful moments when Branagh subtly allows something to catch in his throat, to suppress an emotion he refuses to feel, and in Act Two when Archie unleashed a tirade about being ‘dead behind the eyes’ and talks of not feeling anything, knowing the people watching him don’t feel anything either, it’s an incredibly exposing and affecting moment which certainly makes this audience feel for him. While Branagh has hinted at this before, from that point you see Archie’s struggle, how the affairs, drinking and dodgy deals are all part of the way he fools himself rather than admit he’s never been the man he wants to be and indicate the extent of his self-loathing. It’s an aching and profoundly moving performance.

Gawn Grainger replaced John Hurt at fairly short notice in the role of Bill Rice and its one that grows on him as the play progresses. He is a key force in the play and while a lot of time is spent waiting for and relying on Archie, it is Billy that the household actually moves around. He represents a very old guard – racist, faded and accepting his time is done but still an aspiration for his son. Grainger has the cantankerous side of Billy but needs to draw out the pathos as the run progresses.

Greta Scacchi has that balance just right as Archie’s feeble and highly-strung wife. She’s a permanently anxious presence, well aware that her dallying husband no longer really loves her but like him chooses to hide from the truth, but in gin – and if you attempt a dangerous drink along with the characters then you could be in a pretty sorry state. Always on the verge of tears and regretting a wasted life, Scacchi is a perfect piece of casting. Less so is Sophie McShera who brings very little to the crucial role of Jean. Her initial scenes are quite flat and then everything else becomes a little shrill and surprisingly lifeless.  She lacks the youthful fire that this character heralds and the important contrast of big city life, change and the future that she represents. Again she’s meant to be a character out of time, but looking forward unlike her family and there has to be real angst as Jean debates a life of old or new.

So, ‘our revels now are ended’ and Branagh’s fascinating theatre season draws to a close with this bittersweet and thoughtful version of The Entertainer. It’s hard to know what effect this play will have, Osborne is still divisive, but this season has championed lesser-known and more troubling works, so to end with this elegiac comment on the nature of celebrity seems fitting, and it’s clear how much love has gone into it. In an autumn packed with big male performances, Branagh’s take on Archie Rice cuts deep and as a man who shies away from his own inadequacy it is acutely sad. It’s not for everyone and may be a challenge to attract younger viewers, but the disquieting effect this play has, long after the curtain call, is a rare and valuable thing

The Entertainer is at The Garrick Theatre until 12 November, and there will be a live cinema broadcast on 27 October. Tickets start at £17. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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