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