Stalling between two fools

REVIEWS; THEATRE Don Juan West Yorkshire Playhouse
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The Independent Culture
The dramatic problem facing Moliere in re-telling the Don Juan legend must have been what to do between the story's only truly dramatic moments: the shock of meeting an entirely amoral character and his being hauled off to Hell. He did not resolve it successfully any more than Marlowe had in Doctor Faustus, and for similar reasons. Both authors were responding to the challenge Reason presents to Faith, and specifically what this means for our ethical foundations. Don Juan believes only that, "2+2=4 and 4+4=8" and in himself. Nothing in the episodic progress of his career or the repetitious debates with his outraged servant Sganarelle make any impression on him. The space between rebellious declaration and the shaky re-assertion of the traditional moral order needs to be filled by the dramatic consideration of a secular ethics - arguably a still unfinished project. Failing that, call for Mozart.

To bring Moliere's play within the compass of at least our literary experience, Edward Kemp, with director Toby Jones, has fashioned a "magic realist" adaptation, placing the action in what Sganarelle calls "God's armpit", a remote South American village early this century. This is immediately very attractive in Angela Davies's red earth set, and the available mix of the fly-blown and the Don's impeccably macho dress amid the domicile of spirits makes sense. Indeed, the vital distance between the dirt and Juan's white linen knee as he woos a peasant-girl is an exact and meaningful calibration.

But the main advantage of this world for Kemp is evidently the opportunity to make different sense of the ending. Here Juan is ushered into his grave by masquers in a ceremony borrowed from the Mexican Day of the Dead. As staged, the significance seems to be that it is society that exercises Justice for he is buried alive rather than swallowed by hell-mouth. But nothing that has gone before prepares us for this revolution - there's no hint, for instance, that there are zapatistas behind the masks. Rather, there's a sense of all that unforgiving Judgement business being cosmeticised by the picturesque.

The scene is the more unsatisfactory because it is surprisingly truncated. An advantage of having Toby Jones direct would seem to be that, as an inspired commedia performer himself, he could absorb the play's long slack in ingenuity. Sadly this is only fitfully so. The use of the set, especially in the storm scene, is excellent. But some actions, speeches and less important scenes - for example the madcap chase in the first half - are needlessly prolonged. The performances too, though creditable, lack a vital edge. Martin Marquez fills his silver-tipped boots but does not show the ease that comes of the Don's ineffable self-confidence. As Sganarelle, Patrick Brennan only partly finds a way round the character's reiterations, though his delivery of the biggest of his comically labyrinthine denunciations received well-earned applause. Here the play's characteristic digression is wholly diverting, but too often elsewhere I found myself impatient for progress.

To 26 July (0113-244 2111)