When Michael Grandage directed this Molière version of the great amoral sexual swordsman legend (in a translation by Simon Nye) five years ago at the Sheffield Crucible, he put up a board in the foyer for audience members to add their thoughts.
One girl wrote that she didn’t mind going to Hell as long as Tom Hollander (who played the Don) was there. That sums up the wicked attraction of a seducer written by Molière as a complete bastard and here re-written by Patrick Marber as something even worse: a Soho lounge lizard and sociopath in a twilit world of media deals, hospital visits and lost purposes.
For 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.
He’s oblivious to the disapproval of his sidekick, Sganarelle – here re-cast as Stan, touchingly played by Stephen Wight – the submission of friends and mistresses and even the intervention of his father, beautifully played by David Ryall as a reasonable clubman. By the time the short, sharp 90 minutes are over, you feel you have supped deep in the well of human frailty.
Grandage’s production, designed by Christopher Oram and lit by Neil Austin, conforms to the current Donmar aesthetic of sculpted, super-charged scenes against a black wall background, placing the actors in a sort of enhanced silhouette that sharpens the play to an extraordinary degree. You really feel here that you’re watching some ghastly allegory of life down the road in a private members’ club with swanky Louis Quatorze furniture.
Ifans is tremendous at swaggering through this hinterland, giving a far more focussed and disciplined performance, in fact, than he often serves up on screen. He’s surrounded by some clever, pertinent performances from Laura Pyper as Elvira, Richard Flood as a Soho denizen, and Seroca Davies and Jessica Brooks as abused accomplices in DJ’s rakish progress.
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, just as the Restoration comedies of Congreve and Etherege lined up behind their bad boys. Ifans plays all this with a swish and a velveteen anarchy that hits exactly the right note of blasé, self-indulgent terror and disgust.
Molière’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 is a fantastic example of how you reinstate, and reassert, a modern classic, just as Marber did with Strindberg’s Miss Julie a few seasons back at the Donmar.