Friday, 10 April 2009

Don John - Battersea Arts Centre

Don John
Director and Adaptor: Emma Rice

Poems and Words: Anna Maria Murphy
Musical Director and Composer: Stu Barker
Reviewer: Deborah Klayman

This slick, stylist adaptation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni is exactly what physical theatre should be. From the opening, where a semi-naked Elvira entwines herself with the epynonomous John, through the sizzling sex scenes and ensemble pieces, Kneehigh Theatre’s tightly choreographed show is spectacular to watch.

Don John is the ultimate anti-hero, a man with no saving grace but his animal magnetism. He has appeared in many incarnations throughout literature – Don Giovanni, Don Juan and Cassanova are just some of his names. He is the enbodiment of temptation, a rogue and libertine who takes great pleasure in seducing women and fighting their champions.

This particular version is set against the bleak backdrop of ‘The Winter Of Discontent’ (1978), a time of widespread strikes, blackouts, and dispair. In contrast, John offers excitement and escapism to those he encounters, as well as hollow promises to the score of women ‘on his list’, a chronicle of his conquests. His sidekick, Nobby, takes a polaroid of each woman in place of a physical list, and these many encounters are unrolled by Nobby in ‘Wantonness’(a modern adaptation of “My little lady, this is the catalogue” from Don Giovanni) while images of the multitude of women are projected on a bedsheet. A besotted Elvira has followed John from town to town, believing they are truly meant to be together, and Nobby uses these pictures to show she is just one of the many, and John’s promises can not be believed. Devastated, she leaves but returns throughout the play to offer John the redemption he never accepts.

The audience also witness John’s final three seductions, which are all unsuccessful in one way or another. On arriving in town he immediately beguiles Anna, the wife of Derek the vicar. Anna is a downtrodden woman, wearied by a life devoid of affection and caring for her terminally ill father. After attempting a fruitless sexual liason with Derek Anna is desperate and stricken. Derek leaves and John enters, blindfolding and ravishing her. This scene was electrifying, with Nina Dögg Filippusdóttir giving a raw and intense performance as Anna which saw her literally hanging from the rafters. Her father wakes, and threatens John with a gun – they struggle and the father is shot and killed by John. On realising her encounter was with a stranger, and that it ultimately resulted in her father’s death, Anna is devastated and tells Derek what happened and that she thought it was him.

Meanwhile, Zerlina (a Polish cleaner) and Alan (her inoffensive, unassuming boyfriend) decide to marry and begin to plan the wedding. John desires Zerlina , and arranges a stag night for Alan so he can separate the pair and make his move. Nobby draws Alan off, leaving Zerlina alone with John who asks why she is marrying a man she does not love. She tells him Alan loves her, and can offer her security and stability. Nevertheless, she is drawn to John and they end up having a frantic sexual liason on the table that moments earlier had held the wedding cake for the upcoming ceremony. Alan witnesses this and is humiliated, but John merely laughs.

This scene was another example of the superb physical theatre skills of the company. A number of different things were happening simultaneously but were skilfully interwoven, along with the wonderful music, and built to a climax just as the lovers were discovered. Patrycja Kujawska as Zelina was magnificent throughout, and particularly so in this scene, effortlessly melding her physical, vocal and performance skills to make the character flow through stylistic changes and stay utterly consistent.

Ignoring Nobby’s pleas to ‘lay low’, he gets high and dons a dress to attempt a second seduction of Zelina at a second party, thrown as her hen night. This time she is not willing, and he attempts to rape her in front of the entire party. Elvira is present, and incredibly drunk, so John suggests he and Nobby swap clothes so Nobby can bed her and John will be free to try and seduce Elvira’s maid. Nobby’s deceit is discovered, and the women humiliate, beat and photograph him, with Zelina declaring she will be on ‘no one’s list’. After this, everyone knows who John is, and what he is responsible for and go out in search of him. Taking yet more drugs and drinking heavily, John is confronted by the ghost of Anna’s father, and dies ignominiously. In Mozart’s Opera he is then dragged into hell, but in this version he remains in a crumpled heap while the other characters decide what they will do with the rest of their lives.

In terms of physical theatre and staging, this production was faultless. The only down side was that some of the performers did not speak their text with much truth or conviction. In particular Gisli Örn Gardarsson (Don John), though outstanding physically, lacked any real connection with his character, and this left him somewhat two-dimensional when engaged in dialogue.

In addition to the main narrative, there were a couple of stand-out moments from characters that offered some welcome light relief from the melancholy of the main plot. Carl Grose was marvellous as Alan – understated, sympathetic and hilarious in equal measure – and had a brilliant slapstick routine when preparing for the wedding that got it’s own, well deserved, round of applause from the audience. Craig Johnson’s Derek was similarly impressive, making brilliantly wry, poignant speeches with flawless comic timing.

This is quite simply an unforgettable production, with an imposing set, bold direction, and spectacular lighting, music and design. Produced in association with both the RSC and Bristol Old Vic, Kneehigh’s Don John seduced me, and left me begging for more.

Don John runs at the BAC until Sat 9th May 2009
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