Modern-day makeover for a Soho Don Juan

Patrick Marber's new play moves the story of Don Juan to modern-day London. Paul Taylor accompanies him on a tour that would have inspired the legendary lothario
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Off to Soho to meet the dramatist, screenwriter, director, actor, former comedian and ex-gambler turned family man Patrick Marber. Several women friends of mine turn a vague shade of green when I mention this assignation. One of them even outlines exactly what she'd like to do to him. I would like to feign a purely academic interest in her desire, but it would be futile to do so. Marber fascinates both men and women, with his physical presence, laser-blue stare and the tantalising air of a reformed addict.

We meet in Soho at my request because of the nature and locality of his latest piece - Don Juan in Soho, Marber's brilliant updating of Molière's trenchant take on the epic erotomane, is currently running at the Donmar Warehouse, commissioned and directed by Michael Grandage. At Marber's request, we foregather by the statue of Charles II, an effigy that has seen better days. It's a raw autumn day and I am late because of a train delay. Marber, however, is friendly and very faintly suspicious. "This is rather louche, isn't it?" he twinkles, as we study the statue that will be reproduced on stage as the statutory Stone Guest who - in this diabolically ingenious new version - cycles the Don to his nemesis, in a relentlessly retributive rickshaw through the streets of this seedy, yet thrilling, area of London.

Marber suggests that we retire briefly to a nearby Starbucks, so that he can refuel on a macchiato, a coffee that tastes as butch as it sounds (double espresso with a dash of milk). I confess to him that I'm not a stranger to Soho. Sometimes I stay at the Regent's Palace Hotel, once a notorious knocking shop, now a cheap, respectable hotel on Soho's outer limits, and as a sufferer of insomnia, I have eyeballed those mean streets at some odd hours. "I used to stay there [at the Regent's Palace]," reveals Marber, "in my gambling days. If I left it too late to get back to Oxford, I used to crash out there."

His addiction to poker, during his days as a student of English literature at Wadham College, is the stuff of legend and fed directly into his first stage play, Dealer's Choice, a piece that was developed and taken up by his theatrical mentor Richard Eyre when the latter ran the National. Eyre's passionate advocacy, which is recorded in his excellent introduction to the forthcoming Methuen edition of the collected plays, caused Marber's centre of gravity to shift from television (scripting and featuring in such landmark comedy programmes as The Day Today and Knowing Me, Knowing You) to the legitimate stage. It is a rake's progress in reverse of the norm.

Flippantly, in Starbucks, I hint at what we could go on to do in the amoral fantasia that is Soho. "There was a time when I might have been up for that," he smiles, "but not these days." It's very much to his credit rather than mine that momentarily my lack of manners made the author of Closer, the most near-the-knuckle play about sexuality of the Nineties, blush. Don't run away with the idea, though, that Don Juan in Soho pulls its punches. It is brazen with brilliance and goes for broke. The schtick here is that the Don, now a rakish English aristo (played by Rhys Ifans - "I really liked his extraordinary, magnetic disdain when he played Peter Cook in that TV film about Pete and Dud[ley Moore]"), is Marberised man, in a way that is mutually revealing.

Mozart's extremely influential angle on the Don was best incarnated by the directors Peter Brook and Deborah Warner. Brook (who directed the piece four years ago for the Aix Festival) was brilliantly alert to the way that Mozart's music does not judge the hero. For Mozart, Don Giovanni is, in a very precarious balance between good and ill, a life-force, which is why Brook superbly brought him back from hell at the end to witness his posthumous life-giving effects upon his victims/beneficiaries. Warner, by contrast, emphasised the blasphemy: her Don, stripping shirts as often as he stripped women, committed the ultimate religious lèse-majesté by attempting to mount a statue of the Virgin. Marber, astoundingly, triggers the worst of both these worlds.

"I think, like most of my characters, DJ has come to the end of himself, he's used himself up and is waiting to die. I know a few people who live to fuck. For some of these people you could say, oh well, it's sex-addiction, but for some of them, it's something more than that." The something-more is existential. Marber's Don is heretically against everything that militates in the modern world against authentic life. Life as defined by reality television, for example. Life as defined by - and here it becomes particularly admirable - Western liberals who will bang their brows against the cages of everything but the censoriousness of Islam. There is a brave sequence concerning this issue, and I would like (without knowing for sure) to believe that Marber is here getting at the over-circumspect defence of Jerry Springer - the Opera, by ex-colleagues of his who are, for PC reasons, unprepared to go the extra mile.

I ask if they ever thought of doing a promenade production. When Marber is pleased with a concept, his smile widens so that you get a view of his eyeteeth - a charming sight of which I suspect he is wholly unaware. "Well, I think we could do the Don Juan inspiration tour," he counters. This, as he shows me, would include places such as the Soho Hotel, St John's Ambulance and Emergency Department, Soho Square (of course) and Meard Street, the line of stucco-faced Georgian properties where the Don has a pied-à-terre.

Marber tells me that he had thought of setting a scene in St James's Park, venue for one of our literature's greatest erotic/bawdy/filthy/witty poems, by the second Earl of Rochester, an aristocrat who could perhaps have schooled Don Giovanni further in the classiness, extremity and off-putting privilege of the kind of round-the-clock lust that cannot be tidied away into the category of sex-addiction. Don Giovanni, on this analysis, knows that death is always probingly imminent. It's both an excuse and a profound rationale - we rut like mad because we are worried sick about the alternative: not to rut is to be aware that we rot.

'Don Juan in Soho', Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (08700 606 624), to 10 February

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