Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Don John, BAC

Review: Don John, BAC

Written for Culture Wars, 24.04.2009

Such is the force of Emma Rice’s contempt for Mozart’s Don Giovanni – here rechristened Don John – that he almost becomes a serial killer. In tandem with the late-seventies setting, Gisli Örn Gardarsson’s sexual predator bears resemblance to the Yorkshire Ripper, as he leaves a string of silently spread-eagled, even mangled, female bodies in his wake: First, the once-proud Elvira – now a waifish ghost in pursuit – then the vicar’s unsexed wife Anna and the bookish bride-to-be Zerlina. Indeed, the Polaroids of past victims exhumed for display seem a mass grave – the documentation of a life-time’s lechery.

Kneehigh relocate the fable to the “Breakdown Britain” of 1978, peppered with soup kitchens and union pickets, and, in doing so, they throw a punk amongst the pitmen in a clash of hedonistic individual and moralistic community. Swooping into a jaded small town – all rusty industrialism and dusty illuminations – to scavenge on its women, Don John is a man out only for his own ends while the rest of the world is on strike. As the town runs out of bedposts, he and his goblin-like manservant Nobby are tracked down by its pack of women intent on revenge.

If this discontented England survived on spirit, the same can be said of Kneehigh’s work, which is usually carried by its generosity, resourcefulness and vitality. However, in this case the budget is willing, but the spirit is not. While that is not to declare it entirely absent, Rice struggles to reconcile the grandly operatic with lowly simplicity. The resulting disjuncture stifles enjoyment of the undeniably striking visuals on show.

This has largely to do with Rice’s neglect of the community presented and, accordingly, the socio-political context. Beyond intermittent powercuts and miner musicians, she largely assumes our understanding of the historical connotations, focussing instead on general atmosphere and aesthetic. Here, the winter of discontent – its collective anger and will-power – is reduced to mere picket chic.

While Rice occasionally nails it, thanks largely to Vicki Mortimer’s grand design, which allows gloriously panoramic views and a strong sense of location, one is often left wishing that the tale was given the same attention as the atmosphere. The awkward text makes performers seem cack-mouthed and much of the humour remains plain. The main victim of this is Carl Grose, whose naive Alan is the human equivalent of condensed milk: clammy, infantile and too sweet to stomach. While Örn Gardarsson has imposing physical presence, he lacks the smooth allure of a true lothario. Unsurprisingly, given the piece’s overt feminism, the women fare better: Nina Dögg Filippusdóttir makes a sympathetic Anna and Patrycja Kujawska proves a quirky, zesty Zerlina.

For all its lush visuals and character acting (often with a capital ‘A’), Don John is not one of Kneehigh’s finest. It leaves you cursing rather than celebrating the company’s newfound riches. As Grose sings in his encore rendition of Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are: “Only a fool takes things for granted.” Emma Rice and Kneehigh would do well to heed the warning.

Photograph: Steve Tanner

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