Rogue, rake, romantic, or all and none. Don Giovanni or Don Juan as he is more familiarly known in English, here finally becomes English in order to haunt the streets of a Winter-of-Discontent stricken England. Kneehigh and director Emma Rice make the Don’s rapacious, destructive and fundamentally cruel sexual behaviour a subject of disapproval, but there is nonetheless, as with all Dons, a kind of vicarious thrill to be felt at the sight (often graphically depicted) of his voracious carnality. One has to agree with Kate Bassett, writing in the Independent, when she remarks that she has “never seen a more erotic Don than Gisli Orn Gardarsson when he has a fresh female wound around his torso”. It is Gardarsson’s utterly absorbed portrayal of his character which most impresses; whatever we may think of his place and persona within the play, his dedication and energy are awe-inspiring.
Ultimately however, much has been lost from the Da Ponte/Mozart opera upon which this production is based. This is nowhere more evident than in the character of the Don, who, to quote Shaw, “is a tragic hero or nothing”. Although I do not entirely agree with Shaw’s interpretation, a tragic hero would have been preferable to the anaemic figure on display here. From a play which seeks to delve into the desires and darker wants of its characters, the rather superficial examination of the Don himself is disappointing. ‘Freedom’ in its absolute sense is about as far as we get and even this small indication isn’t particularly enlightening. Mystery is one thing, but befuddlement is never good and befuddlement is all we get.
To be fair to Rice, she has stated that her main focus lies with the play’s female characters and perhaps in attempting to redress a perceived imbalance, she has consciously responded with an imbalance of her own. Of the three women who attract the attentions of the Don, Elvira is by far the weakest, lacking, as she does, a particularly well thought through character. Her personification of intoxicating, overwhelming female desire is intriguing, but never really gets its due and is repeatedly shunted off onto the sidelines in order to make room for the travails of Anna and Zerlina.
Of these two, Patrycja Kujawska’s Zerlina is by far the better. Her endearing combination of naivety and coquettish playfulness around her nice-but-dim fiancé Alan (energetically depicted by Carl Grose) is attractive and it is from her that we best get a sense of the conflict between the yearning for excitement and erotic escapism and a desire to remain rooted and embrace stability, with all its attendant blessings and curses. Anna, on the other hand, whilst convincingly guilt-ridden and neurotic, has her development stymied by being given some of the worst lines in the play. The exchange after her rape and father’s death at the hands of Don John is wince-inducingly dire (‘I thought it was you!’, well did you indeed dear…).
Whilst top marks must be given to Kneehigh for their brilliant transposition of Mozart’s opera to the late seventies and also for the superb choreography, it is ultimately dialogue and music which rob the play of much of its potential. As Bassett notes again, the majority of the lines spoken by the cast are “mawkishly jejune: most embarrassing for an RSC co-production. Really, Rice needs to ditch some of her unevenly talented team”. The narrator, whose annoying running commentary merely gets on one’s nerves, reminded me of a similarly superfluous voice-over in Vicky, Christina, Barcelona. The songs are also uniformly dire, with the lyrical low-light being (sung of Zerlina) ‘she sweeps the night clean / so that we may dream’. The only quality to be heard comes from the excerpts from Mozart’s opera itself, spliced in as a kind of homage. At the end, having managed to string together a convincingly modern twist on the plot for most of the duration, Don John collapses with a drippy final scene in which rather than dragging the unrepentant rake off to hell, Anna’s father merely informs him that he (the Don) ‘doesn’t care’. At which point our antiheroic libertine expires from a drug overdose, prompting ‘Nobby’, our English Leporello, to weep over his prostrate corpse.
Such criticism should not be interpreted as meaning that I disliked Don John, but given its promise, hints of which were present throughout the performance, the final execution was disappointing. For dramatic power and better music, the original is to be preferred. For a good night out however and some startlingly acrobatic dance-sex, there is something to be said for this newcomer.