Don John, Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
A shot of raunchy humour from the original seducer
Wednesday 24 December 2008
On the way in, the audience is warned to expect gunshots, flashing lights and sexual references, which is the least you'd expect of an updated version of the Don Juan story. The surprise elements are the recorded voice of Jim Callaghan, flared trousers, a Bee Gees name check and a Barry White finale in which members of the audience are invited to smooch along with the actors to the strains of "Just the Way You Are".
Emma Rice's voluptuous and often downright raunchy production is a joint effort between her own Kneehigh Theatre, the RSC and the Bristol Old Vic, an alliance no doubt designed to further the RSC's continuing quest to redefine itself as a going concern. The danger is that endless collaborations give the impression that there is no core identity to start with, though Michael Boyd's upcoming new ensemble announcement may change that.
Meanwhile, the heart of this show lies in two performances by the co-founders of the Icelandic troupe Vesturport, noted in London for their outstanding versions of Buchner's Woyzeck and Kafka's Metamorphosis. Nina Dogg Filippusdottir plays Anna, a distraught vicar's wife tending her ailing military father, while Gisli Orn Gardarsson looms as a punk lothario Don John, who administers a brutal sex lesson and shoots the old man.
Thus the framework of the Mozart and da Ponte opera is adopted in these shadowy late Seventies versions of Donna Anna, Don Ottavio, the Commendatore and Don Juan, with many a quotation of the more portentous elements of the opera's score, as well as snatches of Squeeze, The Jam and The Sex Pistols, nestling in Stu Baker's vivid and energetic live music.
It is obviously part of the RSC's job to engage with ideas of epic and heroic theatre and the archetypal myths of world literature. But it's still hard to see the point of this exercise, especially as it doesn't really exploit its stated intention of invoking the winter of discontent in 1978; the show doesn't make any great connection between political stasis and punkish rebellion, and Gardarsson's grim, tall rapist is more a figure of loathsome carnality than of inventive psycho-sexual engineering.
His Leporello-style sidekick is the crassly named Nobby (Mike Shepherd, Kneehigh's founder but not an actor you'd place anywhere near an RSC front rank) who is lumbered with an unsatisfactory "catalogue" song and has his own dog's day among the rubbish bags with Mary Woodvine's doubly wasted Elvira; she and the Don close the first act with a beautiful duet above the raucous hubbub of the all-girl chorus.
Rice – who has adapted the story with new words and poems by Anna Maria Murphy – and her designer Vicki Mortimer have taken on the big courtyard space with a mixture of nerve and daring. The slavish girl chorus push on a vast steel caravan that flops open at the sides to reveal a domestic interior, or a stag night party, or the laid out corpse of the general.
That chorus is formed with personnel from Kneehigh's dance company neighbours in Cornwall, Cscape, who beef up the ensemble scenes with grace and vigour. Da Ponte's maid Zerlina is re-imagined in this context as an erotically super-charged Polish skivvy who is said "to sweep the night clean so that we might dream" and is played with amazing physicality and expression by Patrycia Kujawska, from Gdansk.
On the downside of romance, the two hapless spouses – Derek, the failed vicar ("What's missing from Ch..ch? U R!"), and Derek, Elvira's fiancé – are played with a fine nerdy impishness by Craig Johnson and Carl Grose, the latter literally electrified by his own clumsiness with the festive light bulbs.
An air of slight desperation creeps into the narrative as scenes become increasingly difficult to finish. But as in the best of Kneehigh – the recent Brief Encounter, or the enchanting Tristan and Yseult – Rice maintains a high level of what can only be termed "creative spirituality". Don John's sexual gymnastics with Zerlina are extraordinarily explicit, and there's also a pervasive, dangerous sense of libido on the loose that ultimately amounts to a defence of the project, if not a justification.
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