And darkly flows the Don

FOR THEIR debut production, Theatre Highland have commissioned a version of Mol-iere's uneasy comedy by the novelist, Carl MacDougall, whose reworking follows hard on the heels of Ian Heggie's effort earlier this year for Edinburgh's Theatre Babel Company.

Theatre Highland have struck the better bargain, the easy flow of MacDougall's dialogue - geographically transposed to the Highlands of the 1640s and subtly updated - in stark contrast to Heggie's over-crafted neologising. MacDougall foregrounds Moliere's concern with the moral and religious context surrounding the Don's philandering, rather than these lewder elements in themselves, lining up his hubristic amoral sensualism against the characters who importune him to repent his ways.

From the Don's defiant declaration that "I have it in me to love the whole world", to his wily observation that "all the hypocrite needs to see them through is a touch of humility", the play's events highlight the many shades of grey between the supposed opposites of licentiousness and piety. Mediated by the uncomfortably - though often comically - fence- sitting Murochy, Don Juan's much-put-upon servant, these issues are opened up to encompass wider dualities - freedom and law, flesh and spirit, expediency and principle.

The period background of the Covenanting era - artfully reflected in Andy Thorburn's original live score, which draws on Scottish music and instrumentation of the time - adds weight to MacDougall's treatment without any strain of contrivance. His efforts, though, to intertwine heavenly punishment with a Gaelic clan vendetta, a conflation further muddied by its embodiment in a pair of Celtic spirit-figures as the avenging ministers, are needlessly distracting.

Vincent Friell as the Don commands the stage with all the voluptuous arrogance one could wish for, his languidly larger-than-life rhetoric enlivened by a distinct Sean Connery drawl. While carrying off the grandstanding inherent in the part, however, Friell doesn't overlook the subtleties, bringing out the underlying enigma of the Don's behaviour through hints at deeper motivations: a glimpse of wounded, jealous vulnerability here, a flash of the authentically demonic there. Malcolm Freeman gives a mercurially complementing performance in the twin-anchor role of Murachy, his opportunistic dodgings and diversions between attempts to save his employer's soul and his own self-serving pragmatism, providing both a generous vein of sharply fashioned humour, and a microcosmic precis of the key arguments.

The rest of the cast have far less rewarding work to do - though plenty of it, with 14 characters to play between them. The subsidiary parts are emphatically that, but the cast deliver a succession of carefully fashioned cameos to round out an engrossingly multi-dimensional, tightly constructed production, and a debut that bodes brightly for the company's future.

Tours the Highlands and Islands until 8 July