This is a play that stands or falls on the central performance of the lead character, and when that is presented as here in the person of the hugely talented David Tennant, then it stands. Tennant offers what the West End loves: a tour-de-force performance that looks totally at home in the gilded, plush, ornate interior of this exquisite fin-de-siecle theatre. He is louche, careless, quick-silver, and intensely focussed in each moment, drawing upon a huge range of skills and tricks to make the very big part whizz by in a light-as-a-feather presentation that will appeal to his many fans and draw in a good few new ones, we can be sure.
Around him, writer-director Patrick Marber has arranged a large and varied company of helpmates, lovers, admirers and enemies, in his laugh-a-minute updating of Moliere’s elegant rendition of the famous legend about a man given to the compulsive acquisition of lovers and the perpetual evasion of love. The title situates him and his adventures in Soho, and the theatre itself borders that locality, but this is no more a play ‘about’ a London quarter than it is an epistle on the rights and responsibilities of the aristocracy (‘Don’ is hardly a British title, after all). It is, however, a brave attempt to make new, and remake for today a story that is almost as old as history itself.
In this endeavour, Marber deserves abundant admiration. It is no mean feat to follow in the footsteps of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, Lorenzo da Ponte, Pushkin, Neil Bartlett, et al. What he offers – both in his script, and in the production which he stages here as director – is a stylistically eclectic portmanteau of scenes ripped out of a day in the life of the great libertine, as nemesis approaches and a great and terrible reckoning prepares to fall upon our anti-hero. The narrative offers us scenes being played out in a hospital, a hotel, a public square, amongst other locations, with dozens of parts played by the company. There is even an extended sequence in a club adorned by a stunning wall-sized reproduction of Delacroix’s ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’. The notorious play by Byron upon which that painting is based is referenced in the witty banter of Our Juan and his sidekick factotum, Stan (the affable, but ultimately shallow and venal Adrian Scarborough), so we are not surprised to see a copy from the Louvre looming down at us. It does invite comparisons, however.
Tennant does not. He is constantly on the move, or deliberately and infuriatingly immobile. Always, he commands the stage and makes it run to his tempo. This fascinates, and we forget any troubling questions we may have about the logic (is there any?) in his character’s behaviour: one is reluctant to refer to what he does as a ‘characterisation’, because the person of the Don seems to deny and refute any conventional ideas about what a character should, or can, be.
Not so with the rest of the cast. Scarborough gives us an all too familiar hanger-on type; compromised and spineless, but somehow – ultimately – forgivable. The scowling face of paternal disapproval that is Gawn Grainger’s Louis, although with fewer means at his disposal, has the same effect. As does the abused Elvira of Danielle Vitalis… up to a point. However, with her character the first really serious cracks start to appear in the edifice: we have to believe, one way or another, in the reality of a person as good as she is being as stupid as the play presents her to be. In real life, we would not have any difficulty in understanding that, but in a play it is a harder sell. With a brother looking just like Malcolm X (Adrian Richards’ earnest Charles), it’s even more of a hill to climb, especially when die-hard fogey and reactionary dad seems to have taken his definitely NQOS daughter-in-law (and famille) entirely to his bitter bosom. How on earth did that happen?
When Mozart had these characters, he made them all very much alike, so one can always rationalise that at least they all ‘sound’ as if they belong together in the same hideous mess than the plot throws them. Not so here. Marber rejoices in the multiplicity of modes, styles, registers, dialects, timbres and backgrounds of his cast, so much so that he has to rely upon Tennant’s tyro central act to pull the whole shebang together, and keep it together, right up to the point of his demise. (Oh, sorry, did you not know that he dies?)
On the gorgeous, yet simple set by Anna Fleischle (who provides the splendid costumes as well), and in Mark Henderson’s beautiful lighting, with Adam Cork’s booming musical soundtracking thudding along, and Dick Straker’s hip video design, and Polly Bennett’s snappy, very West End movement, Marber is more than terrifically supported by his crack team. Go, to enjoy all this wonderful stuff, and the rest of the cast too (Theo Barklem-Biggs, Mark Ebulue, Mark Extance, David Jonsson, Dominique Moore, Emma Naomi, Alice Orr-Ewing, Himesh Patel, William Spray and Eleanor Wyld). If, at the end of it all, it doesn’t quite touch your heart, well, that’s because it probably doesn’t have one, any more than the poor old Don himself. Try to forgive it. The rest is loads of fun.
Photos: Helen Maybanks – see other images from Don Juan In Soho