The return of David Tennant to the West End has been some time coming. The excitement about the opening of Don Juan In Soho has been intensifying. And now it is here, Patrick Marber’s production of Patrick Marber’s updated version of Patrick Marber’s adaptation of Moliere’s 1665 Don Juan. Marberllous perhaps – sexy, dynamic and thrilling? Not so much. A few pointed Donald Trump jokes don’t save the day. In the end, this is more Don Quixote on Viagra in Soho – two clownish figures, some noble thoughts, a lot of riding, little carnality. A vision of misogyny but not a theatrical triumph.
Marber’s play is also urgently contemporary. Yes, it’s about sex – and nothing is ever funnier or more serious than sex, whatever the era. It also has much to say about our attitudes to religion, class and gender today. Fundamentally, though, it is about us, about who were are, and what (and who) we desire, what we really think. Don Juan, after all, is a horrendous human being – but he is also utterly alluring. What does it say about us that we’re so completely seduced by him?
These words, written by Patrick Lonergan, Professor of Drama at the National University of Ireland, Galway, appear in the programme for Patrick Marber’s production of his play, Don Juan in Soho, now playing at the Wyndham’s Theatre. They may have been apt for earlier versions of the play or for other productions of it, but they are inapt for this one. Although there is no doubt that David Tennant’s Don Juan is “a horrendous human being” he is, strangely, utterly unalluring. There is little seductive about the performance.
Largely, the problem with the production is that it focuses too closely on the words, without mining the feelings, emotions, and reactions that the words need to sum up. There is too much telling, not enough showing. Both Tennant and his co-star, Adrian Scarborough, deliver their lines with panache and determined expertise, but that does not result in the audience doing other than laughing at the situation, knowingly enjoying the jokes. Most egregiously, there is no true sense of Don Juan’s sensual powers, no fascination by his ability to spellbind and ensnare.
There is endless chatter, convincingly delivered by Tennant always, mostly by Scarborough, which speaks of Tennant’s DJ being able to seduce anyone he sets in his sights, female mostly, but occasionally male. Yet, we are not shown the reality of that. There is no sign of these powers having any effect on Elvira’s brothers at any stage, or on strangers in various scenes, or even on the medical staff who try to snuff out his cigarette smoking at one point – we see Tennant flashing his smile and narrowing his gaze suggestively, but we don’t see any real effect. More importantly, the audience does not feel his power in action.
Don Juan needs to be utterly irresistible. His excesses can only be countenanced if he has that ephemeral something, that power to take away the breath, to make one always forgive his cruelty and wrongdoing, to conspire and laugh with him, to be taken by him, literally and metaphorically. It’s not enough to hear about his seductive powers – you must see them in action and feel them in your own blood.
That doesn’t happen here. There might be kissing and fondling and pawing – despite a gag which brings the house down about “not grabbing pussy”, there is that too – but it lacks any sensual or even carnal undertow. Tennant is compelling and authoritative, but not erotically charged. Charm, no matter how assiduous, is an insufficient bedfellow for Don Juan. Even when a quartet of scantily clad maidens are lined up, apparently desperate for a frolic with him, you never really feel they want to be there, that they are aching for his touch, his attention, their fifteen minutes of fame with him.
Sex and titillation by numbers, or by rote, is a wholly different experience to the kind of whole-bodied full-throttle passionate whirlwind one associates with Don Juan. At a fundamental level, Marber has misjudged this in this production. It’s cold and cynical, often laugh out loud funny, but it doesn’t pulse with unbridled concupiscence. It doesn’t seduce anyone.
This is not to say Don Juan In Soho is all tough going – it’s not. Tennant swaggers and scowls and struts with considerable expertise, easily creating the notion of Satan in a Saville Row suit. He is at his best in the early scenes, particularly the showy ones. He is good at the physical comedy too. His silly ninja moments really work.
There are two extremely funny scenes in the first Act – curiously, this production is interrupted by an interval, when it really should just power through; stopping for interval just shatters momentum. The first is a loud, vulgar and quite wonderful two-hander between Tennant and Scarborough, where their characters are proclaimed. Tennant has a big speech, peppered with current political references, which delights the crowd. It’s like a very filthy scene from an X-rated Carry On Don Juan and vastly enjoyable.
The second scene is worth the whole evening. Following a motor boat incident during the hunt for a newly married fox, Don Juan finds himself in a medical waiting room. The hapless lad, Pete, who rescued him from the Thames is urged by his opportunistic girlfriend, Lotte, to press for a financial reward. While the Groom is receiving medical attention, Don Juan sets out to seduce the Bride, as Lotte enthusiastically fellates him. In a masterstroke, so to speak, an onlooker films the event on her mobile phone. It is ludicrous and outrageous, but genuinely funny.
Partly, that scene works because of excellent support from Theo Barklem-Biggs (a gobby, not-so-bright, but fundamentally nice, Pete) and Dominique Moore (a spunky, spiky and savvy Lotte). This sort of support is not consistent throughout the production. Gawn Grainger is not up to the complexities and subtleties involved in playing Louis, DJ’s father, and that leaves a great hole in the second part of the play.
While Danielle Vitlais was quite affecting as the wronged Elvira, Mark Extance and David Jonsson are less successful. The opening scene, once the Don Giovanni scene-setting is complete, is woefully ill-judged.
Adrian Scarborough, as Stan, the loyal, mistreated “unfuckable hobbit” butler/chauffeur, the keeper of the score card and telephone numbers of DJ’s sexual conquests, charts a steady course. He is perfectly fine, but never does he threaten Tennant for top spot. It’s a pity, because in the hustling for kudos, there is much that could be gained – Scarborough could test Tennant, drive him to a better performance, exactly the kind of thing a part of a good double act does. Here, both are content to rest on their laurels and hard-ons.
There is a tremendous scene towards the end of the night, involving DJ, Stan and Louis at the latter’s club. Here, Tennant misses an opportunity. He could play the scene for laughs, possible but technically tricky (certainly not beyond him) or he could play it for real – convincingly, in a way that sweeps the audience up and hurls them into confusion. He seems to opt for the second approach, but does not make it work. The audience never truly believes what he does, even though Louis and Stan might. This is part of the lack of the seduction factor. The scene just about works but not nearly as well as it should.
Anna Fleischle’s set is the real star of the night. A combination of classic architectural forms speaks to the historical roots of the play, gives it a formal and tangible shape. A sense of ritual and pageantry emanates easily from the Cathedral-like structure, the interior of the dome a starscape summoning eternity.
Use of projections against this structure effortlessly evokes a decadent, hedonistic view of old Soho, the hunting grounds for Don Juan’s conquests. Dick Straker’s videos summon up the hustle and bustle of the streets, the extreme excesses available and the clear sense of pleasures had and available to be taken. Minimal but exquisitely chosen props make each space vital and intriguing.
There is quite superb lighting from Mark Henderson, and sometimes the combination of light, set and video projection is overwhelmingly beautiful, cunningly surprising. The statue works superbly, although it was difficult to see the point of the Mary Poppins moment. This is not a show where admiring children should be in any great numbers.
Adam Cork’s original music carries insistent, throbbing beats and permits some languid and ostensibly sexy movement from Polly Bennett. Sound is utilised well and the voice of the statue was especially well done. Fleischle’s costumes are excellent throughout – from Tennant’s nifty outfits, including a particularly fine dressing gown, to the sodden undergarments of the underprivileged Pete, and all the lingerie in between.
There is a deal to enjoy here, but it is not really a production which justifies the revival of the play. Politically correct re-writes and casting bear their own fruit – there is a sorry sense of misogyny about the narrative and the absence of the seduction factor means that it never diminishes. Perhaps it would have been better had DJ finally been bested by smart sisters of Elvira rather than her brothers? Perhaps DJ’s bisexuality should bear greater emphasis? Perhaps it might have been better not to create a race divide in the cast where the narrative does not really suggest one – in characters such as Elvira’s family or Lottie.
On the other hand, none of these matters may have been in play had the direction been surer and the playfulness of the play and the characters had a sensual resonance which captivated the audience as it might.
The true value of the play is finding yourself caught up in your defence of or commonality with Don Juan. Merely watching the capers unfold, without empathetic investment, rings hollow.