Per­form­ing Arts

Strong per­for­mances keep us in­ter­ested in char­ac­ters we wouldn't re­ally want to know, says Michael Billing­ton

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Bad boys of theatre, by Michael Billing­ton

How do you re­act to a dra­matic hero who is sex­ist, heart­less and ex­ploita­tive? The temp­ta­tion is to dis­miss him out of hand, but Pa­trick Mar­ber’s

Don Juan in Soho, an up­dated re­write of Molière’s play of 1665, meets the chal­lenge in two ways. First, the hero has some em­i­nently sen­si­ble things to say about the hypocrisy of our age. Sec­ond, he’s played by David Ten­nant, who has a se­duc­tive charm that off­sets the more du­bi­ous as­pects of Don Juan’s char­ac­ter.

To be fair, Mr Mar­ber makes no at­tempt to shield us from Don Juan’s bad be­hav­iour. He wan­tonly ditches his bride, Elvira, and treats women as if they were foxes to be hunted. He sponges off his rich dad and fakes pen­i­tence to keep funds flow­ing. He also shame­lessly uses his loyal ser­vant, Stan, while fail­ing to pay his wages.

And yet there is al­ways another side to this Don Juan. while de­vot­ing him­self to plea­sure, he point­edly says: ‘I am not a rapist.’ He rushes to the aid of a man, who turns out to be his brother- in-law, be­set by thugs and, in one great speech, he at­tacks the real vil­lains of our day from bil­lion­aire tax dodgers to racists pos­ing as pa­tri­ots. He also rails at the kind of techno-nar­cis­sists who say ‘wel­come to my vlog. To­day, I bought a plum’.

How­ever, I still think it is Mr Ten­nant’s pres­ence that makes the play en­joy­able. we know from his Ham­let that he’s light on his feet and has a ca­pac­ity for mis­chief. He seems to skip from one se­duc­tion to another in a way that is al­most bal­letic: at one point, hav­ing res­cued a vic­tim of vi­o­lence, he pirou­ettes across the stage as if he were in

Swan Lake.

The key to his per­for­mance is that he turns Don Juan into a pri­apic Peter Pan: a man-child who has never fully grown up.

He is ex­cel­lently part­nered by Adrian Scarborough, who plays Stan as a potato-faced side­kick who can never fully un­der­stand his ob­sti­nate de­vo­tion to his un­feel­ing em­ployer. Gawn Grainger as the hero’s de­ceived dad, Danielle Vi­talis as the wronged Elvira and Do­minique Moore as one of the Don’s open-mouthed ad­mir­ers are all good. Mr Mar­ber’s pro­duc­tion, blend­ing Mozart and mod­ern rock, goes with a swing, but the play serves as a re­minder that, in the theatre, we can be mag­ne­tised by char­ac­ters who, in real life, we could not bear to be in the room with.

Some of Shake­speare’s char­ac­ters fall into that cat­e­gory: who, for in­stance, would want to sup with the Mac­beths? Even Bru­tus, for all that ‘no­ble Ro­man’ stuff, would put one off by his smugly self-right­eous air. That is a point that comes across in the RSC’S new pro­duc­tion of

Julius Cae­sar, which kicks off a four-play sea­son de­voted to Shake­speare’s Rome.

If I ad­mired An­gus Jackson’s pro­duc­tion hugely, it was for sev­eral rea­sons. It takes the un­fash­ion­able de­ci­sion to set the play in its his­toric time and place rather than giv­ing us Fas­cist garb and rov­ing cam­eras. It is spo­ken with ex­em­plary clar­ity.

It also ex­plores the nu­ances of per­sonal re­la­tion­ships. Alex wald­mann makes it abun­dantly

clear that Bru­tus makes the wrong call at ev­ery turn. There is also a vis­i­ble hypocrisy about an as­sas­sin who says, a pro­pos Cae­sar, ‘let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods’ as if mur­der could some­how be sweet­ened. But there is a neu­rotic anx­i­ety about this Bru­tus as you see when, af­ter the con­spir­a­tors have de­parted, he sits in his or­chard qui­etly trem­bling.

Martin Hut­son’s Cas­sius is also one of the best I have seen. He clearly ad­mires Bru­tus, but broaches the idea of killing Cae­sar with un­der­stand­able ap­pre­hen­sion. Mr Hut­son shows Cas­sius’s mount­ing ex­as­per­a­tion at the pig-head­ed­ness of his one-time friend. An­drew Woodall, mean­while, ex­hibits Cae­sar’s deaf­ness and epilepsy as well as his dic­ta­to­rial van­ity.

It’s a fine pro­duc­tion full of unforgettable mo­ments: best of all is the pan­icky un­cer­tainty of the con­spir­a­tors af­ter the mur­der when they look at each other as if to say ‘What now?’.

Even if you don’t have to like dra­matic char­ac­ters to find them fas­ci­nat­ing, there are times when you warm to the peo­ple on­stage. An ex­am­ple comes in The Wipers

Times, which is a drama­ti­sa­tion by Ian His­lop and Nick New­man of the ex­tra­or­di­nary story of the First World War of­fi­cers who, from 1916 to 1918, pro­duced a satir­i­cal news­pa­per in the midst of car­nage and con­flict. They have al­ready turned the story into an award-win­ning TV film and I’m not sure the play adds much, but it makes you ad­mire the brav­ery of its cen­tral char­ac­ters.

They are cur­rently played by James Dut­ton as the pa­per’s self­ap­pointed ed­i­tor and by Ge­orge Kemp as his loyal lieu­tenant: there is more than a touch of the pub­lic school about their com­rade­ship and about their be­lief that hu­mour is a vi­tal weapon in a time of cri­sis. They com­mis­sion par­o­dies, po­ems and sketches in a valiant at­tempt to cre­ate a more po­tent ver­sion of Punch: there are es­pe­cially good lam­poons on the bo­gus op­ti­mism of Hi­laire Bel­loc and the vain­glo­ri­ous pos­tur­ings of a war correspondent called Beech Thomas. The play lacks the genius of

Oh! What A Lovely War, but, in Caro­line Les­lie’s adroit pro­duc­tion, it hon­ours the sub­lime in­so­lence of two am­a­teur jour­nal­ists who re­alised the re­viv­i­fy­ing power of laugh­ter.

‘Don Juan in Soho’ runs un­til June 10 (0844 482 5120); ‘Julius Cae­sar’ un­til Septem­ber 9 (01789 403493); ‘The Wipers Times’ un­til May 13 (020–7836 8463)

In Pa­trick Mar­ber’s Don Juan in Soho, David Ten­nant im­bues the dis­so­lute Duke with a se­duc­tive grace and swag­ger

Sic sem­per tyran­nis: the RSC’S new Julius Cae­sar

Courage un­der fire: The Wipers Times is mov­ing and up­lift­ing

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