Theatre: Love-rat brought to book

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The Independent Culture
"ONLY CONNECT"; EM Forster's humanist injunction was pre-emptively parodied by Don Juan whose philosophy was "only collect". But was the Don anything more than the anorak of female scalps, the trainspotter of orgasms? From the Romantic view of him as the great anti-establishment rebel, brandishing his penis against God the Father, to Shaw's depiction of him as the life-force, there has been a compulsion to turn his carnality into the symbol of some grand idea.

Written in a godless age, Don Juan on Trial - a dark comedy by the contemporary French dramatist Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt - puts this perception of him in the dock, too. The publicity for the British premiere of the play lays prudent stress on Don Juan as "the original love-rat", the Enlightenment's Dirty Den. And the form of the play, in which six of the Don's cast-off conquests trick him into a tryst in a dust-sheeted chateau, is easy to advertise as a sort of First Wives Club in 18th-century frocks. It's a cunning device which proves to be the Trojan horse for some funny, smartly somersaulting philosophical fare, well communicated in Jeremy Sams's new translation. Characteristically, the offence for which the Don stands trial is inverted during the course of the piece: he is indicted first for being Don Juan, and then for having stopped being so.

I'm in two minds, though, about the dramatic structure. Yes, it will get people in who might otherwise have stayed away. But it also means that the real meat of the play is only presented late and in flashback during testimony at the revised tribunal. Robert O'Mahoney's brooding, defensive Don has been lured to the chateau by the scheming, elderly Duchesse de Vaubricot (Eve Pearce). She has the means to force him to marry the goddaughter whom he defiles, and who seems to have put him off his promiscuous stroke.

The crucial revelation is that it was not this beautiful girl but her young, reckless, hard-living brother (Alex Ferns) who had caused this transformation. Before it was swept away by suicide, love had been presented to him in a fleshly form he could not desire, giving him a first opportunity to acknowledge something beyond himself. An intriguing twist to the myth, but one that might have made a better starting point of a play. The relationship here is under-dramatised and slightly cloudy. Indeed, one would still like to see a play in which the Don found himself seduced, in more ways than one, by Lord Byron.

Paul Taylor

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