Review: Don Juan in Soho ~ theatre notes

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Review: Don Juan in Soho

Don Juan in Soho by Patrick Marber, directed by Peter Evans. Set and costumes by Fiona Crombie, lighting by Matt Scott, sound by David Franzke. With Craig Annis, Angus Cerini, Daniel Frederiksen, Katie-Jean Harding, Bob Hornery, Kate Jenkinson, Bert Labonte, Christen O’Leary, James Saunders and Dan Wyllie. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne, until February 16. Bookings: 1300 723 038.

Patrick Marber’s contemporary treatment of the tale of Don Juan is only the latest of something like 1700 versions (and counting) of the legend of the serial seducer. One of the most famous is Molière’s, which premiered in Paris in 1665. It was considered so scandalous it was hurriedly withdrawn after 15 performances. The principle outrage was religious: Molière’s critics accused him of “attacking the interests of Heaven” and of insulting the King.

It’s easy to see why: Don Juan is as attractive as he is reprehensible, a defiant individualist and libertine whose perverse honesty (or corrosive cynicism, depending how you look at it) exposes the hypocrisies of those who condemn him. “The profession of hypocrisy has wonderful advantages,” says Molière’s Don Juan. “All the other vices of mankind are opened to censure, and everyone is at liberty to attack them boldly; but hypocrisy is a privileged vice which closes the mouth of everyone.”

Hypocrisy is Marber’s principal target, but he also takes aim at the vacuous narcissism of celebrity culture. This contemporary Don Juan looks at celebrity chefs, footballers and bloggers spilling their inner anguish across the tabloid minds of a gossip-hungry world, and will have none of it: he prefers the bestial but honest itch of desire above the tawdry confessional. “'We live in an ‘age of apology",” says Marber’s DJ. “Don't confuse it with authenticity.”

Marber has written a robustly contemporary and yet surprisingly faithful adaptation of Molière’s original, complete with the avenging statue (this one of fellow libertine Charles II) that mysteriously drives Don Juan to his eventual doom. Marber even restores some punch to the scene considered most scandalous in the 17th century, in which DJ bribes a beggar in an attempt to make him blaspheme against God. Only in this version, it’s a Muslim beggar.

Marber’s DJ (Dan Wyllie) is, as his appalled sidekick Stan (Daniel Frederiksen) says, “Satan in a suit from Saville Row”, who has “declared a jihad against the human spirit”. At the beginning of the play he has just fled his recent marriage to the saintly Oxfam worker Elvira (Katie-Jean Harding), whose charms, after two years of dogged pursuit, have vanished with her conquest.

DJ is a monstrous, infantile egotist, supremely uncaring of the wreckage he leaves in his wake as he pursues his desires. His brazenness leads to some brilliantly filthy moments of stage comedy. But perhaps what is most enjoyable about this text is its playfully heightened language, which is unashamedly rich and theatrical.

Director Peter Evans takes his cue from the excesses of Marber’s writing, and gives Don Juan in Soho an equally heightened production, on a stripped-down stage that exposes the mechanics of the theatre. The action is played out fluidly before a series of flats, with photographic backgrounds that can be stripped away to create another scene.

The performances, which grew on me as the evening progressed, make no attempt at realism. Wyllie’s aristocratic DJ is your classic theatrical cad, magnified to absurd proportions. Daniel Frederiksen as Stan, as exploited and charmed as any of DJ’s women, struggles miserably with his own greed: while he longs for a conventional life, he can’t resist the crumbs that fall from the Earl’s table.

These two central roles are supported by some lively performances, though the cast’s accents tend to be a bit wonky. Katie-Jean Harding, a recent VCA graduate with an eye-catching quality of luminosity, manages the difficult task of giving emotional weight to Elvira’s attempts to save DJ’s moral soul. But what is also clear is that, for all his blatant caddishness, DJ has woken her own sexual passions: her motives for wanting him back are as lustful as DJ’s own. And there are some fine cameos, in particular, Christen O’Leary as one of his brief conquests from the tower blocks, seduced before the appalled eyes of her boyfriend Pete (Bert Labonte).

It’s a nonsensical fantasy, perhaps especially in the visions of crowds of satisfied women fainting in DJ’s wake, which wouldn’t be out of place in email spam for Viagra. The danger of such artifice is that the heartlessness of its protagonist can lead to a concomitant indifference in the audience. Evans avoids this by gradually stripping the stage back to its walls, destroying all theatrical illusion, in an effective mimesis of DJ’s moral emptiness.

DJ’s grisly death at the hand of Elvira’s brothers is surprisingly horrifying and poignant. Marber lacks the metaphorical power of religion – no flames of eternal hellfire greet DJ, despite his supernatural hallucinations. Instead, his fate is existential barrenness, a wastrel life that amounts to a tawdry and vengeful murder; yet it's difficult not to admire his defiant refusal to apologise. His only epilogue is the hapless Stan mourning his unpaid wages. But thankfully, there’s no neat moral bow at the end. Like Molière, Marber leaves any moralising up to his audience.

Picture: Dan Wyllie (front) and Daniel Frederiksen in Don Juan in Soho. Photo: Jeff Busby

A shorter version of this review appeared in Thursday’s Australian.


DeirdreM said...

Hi Alison,
This is the first time that I have used a blog but I really enjoy your site and reviews and so wanted to share my experience of DJ which I saw last night.
Loved the set and the scene changes + costumes - but I agree with you about the accents. Having come originally from the UK, it grated hearing the inaccuracy of the accents, especially the Irish ones. As I mentioned at the forum after the play, it was disconcerting to hear that Elvira and her brother came from such different parts of Ireland. Craig Annis had the best accent, but even Dan Wyllie's supposed toff's accent would veer between a pre world-war two Mitford style voice and Estuarine english. I realise that perhaps for most Australians in the audience, this wouldnt even have been an issue, but if the MTC is going to do such plays, I would like to see them getting it right!
Cheers, DeirdreM

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Diedre, and welcome. I'm with you there: obviously this play couldn't have been done without the accents, and it would have been much better if they had been accurate. Accents are always a problem: they're something you don't notice if they are right, but which can seriously interfere if they're not (I remember a miserable time in an Athol Fugard production: I was born in South Africa, and while I couldn't do a South African accent to save my life, it seems to be hardwired into my memory).

Anonymous said...

Hey Deidre, I thought the accents were fine. I thought Dan Wyllie's accent fitted his style - and that's what I enjoyed so much about this production - it had style. I have travelled widely in the UK and Ireland - and you know what, I couldn't fault the accents. Perhaps though you would suggest starving the actors playing Irish characters with nothing but mouldy potatoes Deidre? I think you might like to consider that if actors are to render characters as faithfully as they would appear in real life, we simply wouldn't understand them. For heavens sakes, if those actors spoke in true Northern Irish, they would be truly incomprehensible. It's called style and this production deserves praise. I loved it, and so did my mum. (and she is English and she got immediately that Don Juan was English, and Elvira was Irish). Simple. Those who can't, criticise DeidreM.
Much love, a Man from Ireland.

Alison Croggon said...

Well, there's no arguing with an Irish mum, let's face it...! In Deirdre's defence, I'd say that I noticed the wobbly accents too (my background is English, but long overlaid with the more relaxed accents of Australia). But I still loved the production. And hey, it's not true that critics are people who can't do anything else. Not that I can act, myself.

Anonymous said...

Just saw the play last night and really enjoyed it but the accents did grate.
It took me a while to realise that Colm's accent was supposed to be Irish at all and all three supposed siblings had diametrically different accents. The biggest problem however was that the accents changed rather than the fact they were geographically inaccurate.