Neil Bartlett recently set the restless sea voyages, shipwrecks and reunions of Shakespeare's Pericles within the framework of a modern hospital - an arresting context for a play where redemption is partly achieved through therapeutic care. Now, in his stylish and biting farewell production after 10 glorious years as artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith, he has had the comparably imaginative and revealing idea of locating Molière's Don Juan in a swanky hotel.
The lobby is a kind of louche limbo, paraded by potential pick-ups. The rustic peasant girls who compete for the Don's attentions become a couple of squabbling sexily clad chambermaids. Scenes are announced by the impatient, hustling sound of a reception-desk bell. In a clever and disturbing touch, the scarlet décor of the hotel is made to appear like a continuation of the theatre's own Matcham interior, pointedly closing off any escape routes for a hero who, in Bartlett's estimation, is already in a private hell.
WB Yeats wrote: "It is terrible to desire and not to possess, and terrible to possess and not to desire." It's the second of those afflictions that seems to haunt James Wilby's gilded, hollow, upper-class rotter whose seductions have become sterile mechanical exercises, conducted in the deluded belief that you can stave off existential boredom with mere novelty and sheer numbers. Wilby delivers an oddly charmless performance; there is none of the requisite danger that the audience will itself be seduced by the character's shameless charisma and he is awkward and unfunny in the farcical routine where the Don hoodwinks both chambermaids simultaneously.
The actor is at his best in moments of cold-hearted, toying ruthlessness as when, like a dog-owner demanding a trick before giving a biscuit, he tries to bribe a beggar into blaspheming. He's good, too, at those points where the Don takes a sudden detached scientific interest in his own strangeness: "Do you know I think I actually felt something," he marvels distantly. The most brilliant touch in Molière's portrait of this legendary hero is the mock-piety by which he perfects his blasphemy: in deceiving his father (a stiffly forbidding Giles Havergal) that he has made a religious conversion, the Don jeers at patriarchs both earthly and heavenly in the one act. Wilby brings just the right scathing flamboyance to Bartlett's trenchant translation at this juncture: "A little penitence, carefully applied, is the best possible cover-up" (which pinpoints its cosmetic nature) and there's a beautifully blasé reference to God as "that most flexible of alibis".
As the Don's servant, Sganarelle, Paul Ritter is on superbly funny form, coming over like the bemused half of a double act whose partner just happens to be a truly diabolical ("The only obligation is to my own desires") individualist. "Oh come on, interrupt me - it's hard to have a philosophical discussion by yourself," begs this scrubby-bearded, wily side-kick when the Don loftily refuses to engage with him. Brilliantly (and understatedly) collusive with the audience, Ritter can begin a sentence that's sharply critical of his master and turn it half way though into commendation. If the production does not leave us quite so radically ambivalent towards the Don, it offers the kind of incisive vision that has been the hallmark of Bartlett's excellent regime.
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