Don Juan in Soho, Patrick Marber’s 21st-century take on Molière’s 1665 comic classic, premiered last night (6 December 2006, previews from 30 November) at the Donmar Warehouse, with Rhys Ifans taking the title role (See News, 22 Jun 2006).
The infamous amoral hedonist Don Juan (or DJ in Marber shorthand) and his antics are relocated to modern-day Soho where the broken and brazen, hustlers and hoorays all pack in to one seething square mile. The production is directed by Donmar artistic director Michael Grandage, who also directed Marber’s similarly radical rewrite of Strindberg’s Miss Julie at the same address two years ago.
While there were some concerns that the dangerous stakes of Moliere’s original may have been underplayed, first night critics were nonetheless seduced by both Marber’s reinvention of a stage classic and Ifans’ “tour de force” performance as the anti-hero at the centre of it. There was also high praise for the supporting performances and for the evocative elements of Grandage’s production and Oram’s design that firmly ground the piece in the seedy Soho of today.
Further, coming as it does in the wake of A Voyage Round My Father and Frost/Nixon, both of which have now transferred to the West End, the production elicited several comments about the success of Grandage’s regime, with one critic declaring the Donmar “an infallible hit factory”. The December timing also prompted many to recommend it as an adults’ Christmas alternative to pantomime.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (4 stars) – “The greatest talent exhibited by the impressively rangy and non-committal Rhys Ifans as the eponymous DJ is one for not caring a jot for his responsibility towards other people. Tall, blond and nasty, he beds, weds, and moves on just the same. He plays the role like a piano exercise: dedicated, focussed, and self-obsessed…. By the time the short, sharp 90 minutes are over, you feel you have supped deep in the well of human frailty…. The overall effect, in Marber’s acidulous translation, is a portrait of a loathsome yet compelling bad boy in a society that applauds his decadence…. Ifans plays all this with a swish and a velveteen anarchy that hits exactly the right note of blasé, self-indulgent terror and disgust. Moliere’s play was first performed in 1665 but was lost to the repertoire for centuries. Now, it seems like a necessary parable of the age, and Marber’s version, fully plugged in to the world inhabited by his showbiz pals, is both a wonderful report from the front line and a red alert warning. This a fantastic example of how you reinstate, and reassert, a modern classic.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “I suppose one day the Donmar will come a cropper with a dreadful flop, but at present the place seems to be an infallible hit factory…. Don Juan is another absolute cracker. I normally find Moliere as entertaining as gastric flu, but in Patrick Marber’s terrific new free adaptation… the play proves savagely funny, disturbingly dark and disgracefully sexy…. On the face of it, Don Juan is an utter cad…. And yet, and yet… Isn’t he indeed what most men would secretly like to be if only we had the courage, the charm and the stamina? Marber, in a demotic script full of foul language and irresistible filthy jokes, uses the character to lay into the idiocies of our age, most notably our obsession with celebrity and a confessional culture…. Michael Grandage directs a superbly assured and often genuinely shocking production that uncovers all the piece’s cruel comedy and nihilistic emptiness…. Rhys Ifans gives an absolute tour de force in the title role…. His charisma is so strong that, had he asked me nicely, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have gone to bed with him myself.”
Nicholas De Jongh in the Evening Standard (4 stars) – “Patrick Marber has fashioned a ravishing, thoroughly modern make-over for the worst sex addict in theatrical history, Moleière's Don Juan. The humour and witty invective is imaginatively cruel, even sufficient to pleasure practising sadists. Rhys Ifans, resembling the young Peter O'Toole, makes a dazzlingly arrogant impression as the lordly DJ, too languid to put a cigarette in his own mouth, or light it, and equipped with a monstrous ego…. Purists and pedants may resent the way Marber has taken almost as many liberties with Molière's text as Don Juan took with those gullible women to whom he promised love but abandoned after the orgasm. Marber, though, offers the subtitle "after Molière" as well as the allusion to Soho, making it clear that though he follows the narrative outlines of Don Juan, his treatment is a radical rewrite, shaping the original into a modern morality or fairy tale…. Michael Grandage's production achieves the right, frantic comic momentum…. In a flash of sexual timidity, also, Grandage has removed Marber's apt allusion to DJ's gay proclivities, when no females came to hand. Still, Marber's lovely, black comedy Don Juan quite displaces Molière's.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (3 stars) – “While Marber's entertaining version offers a … radical rewrite, it lacks the subversiveness of Molière's original…. The hero's louche escapades are often hilarious…. But where is the danger in all this?… Given the Soho setting and the uncanny resemblance of Rhys Ifans' DJ to a young Peter O'Toole, there are times when the play comes across as a buccaneering version of Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell. But Ifans carries off the part with stylish insolence. And Stephen Wight as his disapproving but envious dogsbody, and David Ryall as his censorious father, are impeccable. Michael Grandage's production and Christopher Oram's design also capture Soho's mixture of swagger and seediness with dazzling fluidity…. Whizzing along for 90 minutes, the evening offers a rutting rake's modern progress. But, while I was beguiled, I never felt that frisson of fear you get from Molière, where the transgressive hero is consumed by the flames of hell.”
Alice Jones in the Independent - “Almost from the moment Rhys Ifans strides lankily on to the stage, the image of the modern-day Lothario with skinny trews and a Stringfellow blond bouffant of hair, we are seduced…. Don Juan in Soho is less dark than Marber's previous works, a louche, drug-and-libido-fuelled romp and a love letter to the seamier side of life in London. As expected, the writing is taut and sharp and Michael Grandage's production is slick with a variously-lit back curtain providing quick location changes and a frantic soundtrack conjuring up the nocturnal city. Ifans is a tour de force as the eponymous hero - the comic lovechild of Rik Mayall and Peter Cook.… He is supported by a zesty cast who never let the energy levels drop…. Don Juan in Soho is not flawless, but with Marber's razor-sharp wit and Ifans' whirlwind performance there is surely no better adult (in both senses of the word) Christmas show on the circuit.”
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