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Don John

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Since opening in Stratford-upon-Avon last December, Kneehigh Theatre’s raunchy update of the Don Juan story - created in association with the RSC and supported by the quiescent Bristol Old Vic - has toured the country before coming to rest for a month at the BAC.

It’s a belter of a show, and certainly fulfils director Emma Rice’s intention of calling the legendary lothario to account: Don John’s collection of conquests gang up on him at the end as he writhes in his death throes; Mozart and Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni is consumed by hell’s fames, but hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

The Don’s sexual fascination is never totally renounced, despite the odd criticism of his pimping Leporello, Mike Shepherd’s craven Nobby, and the tall, serpentine Icelandic actor Gisli Orn Gardarsson, co-founder of Vesturport, presents an entirely plausible erotically charged figure in his slinky black jumper and leather trews.

The abused Elvira (Amy Marston), pursues her marital fantasy even to the brink of slatternly desperation; one of the many great songs littering Stu Baker’s original score is the Crystals’ extraordinary “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss).”

The Don Giovanni plot is transposed to 1978 - the voice of Jim Callaghan on the radio, strikes everywhere, power cuts, Noddy Holder hairstyles - with new words and poems by Anna Maria Murphy and a design by Vicki Mortimer of fairy lights, bin liners, a smouldering workmen’s brazier and an extraordinary metal container that flaps open for interior scenes; this is operated by the four slave girls (point taken) and dancers of the Cornish dance troupe Cscape.

The physical surprise and excitement of the show in the RSC’s Courtyard is of necessity limited in more of an end-staging in Battersea. The script is uneven, the drama distinctly jerky. But this is only to complain of a splendid ambition that falls short of total achievement.

Most of the performance detail is terrific, from Carl Grose’s sweaty vicar and the other Vesturport co-founder Nina Dogg Filippusdottir’s frustrated dipsomaniac wife - taken by surprise, and force, while attending her dying father - to the bumbling virtuosity of Craig Johnson’s Derek and his wayward but still touchingly devoted loved one, Zerlina the cleaner, electrifyingly played and danced by Patrycja Kujkawska from Gdansk.

- Michael Coveney

NOTE: The following THREE STAR review dates from December 2008, when this production premiered at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

I always look forward to a Kneehigh production. They don’t shy away from the weighty stories or the meaty issues – in fact, they tend to attack them head-on, with a wonderful theatrical tenacity and panache that leaves the audience feeling like they’ve really had an experience.

Don John is no exception – it’s the classic operatic tale, but Kneehigh style - with bells and whistles. Truth be told, it needs a few bells and whistles as the plot itself is a bit insubstantial: man seduces lots of women and goes to Hell. The end. Fine for opera, as the centrepiece there is spectacular singing – but I get the feeling that an agile and complex theatre company like Kneehigh needs a bit more to sink its teeth into.

It’s set in the 1970s; which provides some great costumes and comic pop culture references; and also brings it closer and more painfully to the bone. This is less of a story and more of a study – and it’s a pretty nasty subject matter. ‘John’ - as he is here - isn’t any sort of lovable rogue, but simply cruel, repellent and almost inhuman. There’s a lot of hurt, damage, brokenness and rottenness on stage.

But there’s always a kind of magic about Kneehigh. There’s a fierce heart to their productions that always draws out great beauty and enchantment; which is part of what makes this show so colourful. There is, of course, also the spectacular theatrical machinery: the live musicians; the amazing multi-faceted set, the dancing, the gadgets, the breathtakingly beautiful poetry from Anna Maria Murphy - the list goes on. As ever, Vicki Mortimer’s ingenious set is as much a part of the production as any character on stage; and the action is interspersed with live music as well as dance from Cscape dance company.

The well-placed and maturely-directed elements of dance from Cscape add another level to the visual richness of this production – and there are some great physical images in this show: hanging off rafters, bending over tables, swinging around chairs in a deserted church.

But despite all these bells and whistles the characters are deftly drawn and sympathetically played. Particularly engaging are Carl Grose and Patrycja Kujawska as odd couple Alan & Zerlina.

For me, however, this isn't as strong as Cymbeline – the last Kneehigh production I saw at Stratford. Perhaps it’s the weaker storyline; Kneehigh seemed to come into their own interpreting one of Shakespeare’s bizzarrest and most complex plays. There’s maybe also a sense that the idea of Don John is so unpleasant to director Emma Rice that he’s held somewhat at arms length. I get the feeling that, at times, the other characters become objectified too; becoming studies on desperation, self-destruction or denial and losing that all-important human edge.

- Fiona Handscomb


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