Patrick Marber‘s bracing, brutal and ferociously funny update of Molière’s Dom Juan had a brief outing at the Donmar Warehouse in 2006 – and as the world turns, and issues of identity, selfishness and morality become ever more pressing, it is exhilarating to have a slightly revised version back in the West End.
It’s particularly welcome to see it placed – under Marber’s own directorial gaze – in the exceptional hands of David Tennant (as DJ) and Adrian Scarborough (as his loyal servant Stan) whose playing releases all the play’s unashamedly filthy comedy while simultaneously never losing sight of the central question at the heart of this and every other telling of the Don Juan legend; How is this amoral and compulsive seducer to be judged?
"Please don’t be charmed. He isn’t a loveable rogue. He really isn’t," Stan warns us early on, having previously described his boss as "Satan in a suit from Savile Row ". And this is the exact impression Tennant makes on his first appearance: tall, handsome but almost reptilian in his slouching, confidence in his own prowess as a compulsive womaniser. Faced with his betrayed bride Elvira (an attractively direct performance from Danielle Vitalis) modernised from a convent girl into a committed charity worker, he is truly repellent, lounging on a sofa as she breaks down in front of him.
Yet it is both his self-knowledge ("just a c**t with an eye for one") as well as his easy charm and delight in his own cleverness that carry us with him through the exploits that follow, including one exceptionally bawdy scene where he is being given a blowjob by one willing woman while trying to chat up the bride whose husband he has just left in a coma. Both script and performance walk the tightrope of genuine comedy and near disgust with aplomb. This is a performance full of sexy grace – Tennant’s always leaping on chairs, or folding his hands into elaborate semaphore – but brave enough to reveal a corruption within.
But Tennant is matched by Scarborough, whose own conflicted feelings tug and draw him in the play’s troubled waves. As the mood darkens, and vengeful families move into action, while mysterious statues come to life threatening DJ with death, our tension between admiration for DJ's defiance and revulsion at his lack of care are perfectly reflected in Scarborough’s agonised manoeuvrings.
At the close, in a magnificent monologue of disgust at a degraded world where the most powerful man on it is "a charlatan, a fake tan, an orangutan!" and history has run down from descriptive poetry to the self-obsession of a selfie, Tennant’s DJ presents himself as an honest man in a hypocritical society, embracing death unrepentantly.
It’s powerful stuff, though I can’t help missing the absence of any external moral dimension – that sense of other that makes the gaping hell of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, for example, so terrifying. We get a snatch of the score here, but the mood is generally more poised, less fearful. The moment the statue – of Charles II – comes to life is funny as well as eerie.
Anna Fleischle‘s smoke-filled setting, swiftly switching between Soho squares and sanctuaries is nicely realised, with the help of Dick Straker’s videos and Mark Henderson’s lighting design. The way ghosts of doubt and terror suddenly flicker into the scene is nicely managed, though some of the disco dancing is unconvincing.
In the end, it is those central performances and the vicious wit of Marber’s script that linger into the night, finding resonance in a play from 1665 to throw some light and a lot of laughter on the world in which we live today.
Don Juan in Soho runs at Wyndham's Theatre runs until 10 June.