'Don Juan in Soho': Theater Review
David Tennant stars as the stone-hearted womanizer in Patrick Marber’s loose modern adaptation of the Moliere comedy.
Patrick Marber is in the midst of quite the purple patch. His adaptation of Hedda Gabler has just ended its lauded run at the National Theatre; he’s currently staging Tom Stoppard's Travesties to packed audiences; and now he’s directing his own modern reworking of Moliere’s Don Juan, which is destined to be another crowd-pleaser — and the rudest, raunchiest, most unabashedly guilty pleasure in town.
Titled Don Juan in Soho, Marber's update was first performed at the Donmar Warehouse in 2006, with Rhys Ifans in the lead. Though Wyndham’s Theatre is only around the corner, this is formally the play’s West End debut. And now it’s David Tennant’s turn to have a blast as the debauched and pitiless womanizer about to get his comeuppance.
Marber has relocated Moliere’s plot to modern-day Soho (London’s former red light district, with an appropriate history of seediness), where his antihero, now known as DJ, is indiscriminately racking up conquests, whatever the consequences.
And so the action opens with him hiding from new wife Elvira (Danielle Vitalis), an international aid worker he has courted around the world’s trouble spots, and wed, merely to take her virginity. Honeymoon over, the cad is now ensconced in a hotel room with a Croatian supermodel, while his servant and fixer Stan (Adrian Scarborough) keeps guard in the lobby.
Having temporarily appeased one of Elvira’s vengeful brothers, the disaffected Stan laments this “Satan in a suit from Savile Row,” and urges the audience not to be charmed: “He’s not a loveable rogue.” But this is the clever wink from the playwright that goes to the heart of his take on the dastardly don. Despite his protestations, Stan is completely under the spell of his boss’ unapologetic outrageousness — as, to some extent, are we.
Tennant has already played variations on this theme. Long before he became famous as Dr Who, he was an excellent small-screen Casanova; he's terrific value, imbuing the role with mischief and amorality. Making his first entrance as DJ, he immediately provides the darkness and light of the character. With a tailored check suit, rock-star bouffant and five o’clock shadow, he glowers with aristocratic arrogance, before kissing his man full on the lips, tweaking his nipples and bouncing around the stage with a nonchalant defense of his behavior. All the while, in what might be a fashionable video artwork at the rear of the lobby, the shadow of a shark patrols, back and forth.
Much of what follows plays as highly amusing farce, as DJ bends morality and credulity to get laid, while keeping one step ahead of his wife and her family. The multitasking high point for both character and actor comes in a hospital waiting room, as DJ manages to be fellated by one woman while simultaneously propositioning another, whose husband he has, albeit inadvertently, put into a coma.
Tennant’s physicality and vocal control in this scene are spot-on. He’s well-matched throughout by Scarborough, not least when the preening dandy and the dumpy prole share a surprising musical duet. Both actors dive with relish into Marber’s ribald language, which is frequently shocking yet everything you’d expect from a misanthrope suffering from sex addiction and the stooge who’s been swimming in the same cesspool for far too long.
Scarborough gives a good account of long-suffering acquiescence, and arguably Stan’s vacillating moral compass is less impressive than DJ’s honest lack of one. Whether or not Elvira is correct in suggesting that her unrepentant husband is a "nihilist posing as a libertine," it’s in DJ’s railing against hypocrisy (religious and otherwise) that Marber, like Moliere, attempts to mine some semblance of mitigation in the man.
Of course, an atheist in 17th-century France was a more radical proposition than it could be today. Marber instead elicits discomfort in having DJ challenge a Muslim tramp to blaspheme against Allah in exchange for his expensive watch (he fails), before a rote but unimpeachable diatribe against modern society that takes in social media, public confessional, celebrity chefs, pedophile priests, "racists posing as patriots" and "a charlatan with a fake tan." How nice to see that the social commentary has been updated.
It's difficult to accept a Don Juan that doesn't feel at all tragic — the statue, so fearsome in Don Giovanni, here transports DJ away in a tourist cycle ride over his beloved Soho, in a fairytale farewell to his hunting ground. Yet there's no denying the ferocious comedy of Marber’s treatment, and there’s nothing quite like an evening of guilty laughter.
The playwright directs with racy aplomb, utilizing a flexible ensemble to portray prostitutes and demonic dancers, and benefiting from an elegant partnership between set designer Anna Fleischle (another ubiquitous presence in London just now, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and The Kid Stays in the Picture) and video designer Dick Straker.
Venue: Wyndham’s Theatre, London
Cast: David Tennant, Adrian Scarborough, Gawn Grainger, Theo Barklem-Biggs, Mark Ebulué, David Jonsson, Dominique Moore, Himesh Patel, Danielle Vitalis
Director-playwright: Patrick Marber
Set & costume designer: Anna Fleischle
Lighting designer: Mark Henderson
Video designer: Dick Straker
Music and sound designer: Adam Cork
Presented by: Playful Productions, in association with Sonia Friedman Productions