As the academic programme note to Michael Grandage's Sheffield production of Don Juan acknowledges, "The upswing in Molière's fortunes in Britain has in no small measure been due to the availability of performable translations and adaptations." Translators such as Ranjit Bolt make the language, and through it the action, skip along playfully, even when the play is as problematic as this version of the story of the unrepentant philanderer. The major selling point of this production is such a new translation by Simon Nye.
Nye is adamant that his work is a translation rather than an adaptation or a "new version": the gags are pretty much all Moliere's. But the language, at once blunt and sharp, forthright yet measured for maximum effect, is entirely characteristic of the writer of Men Behaving Badly and How Do You Want Me? I am a relatively recent, after-the-fact convert to these series, and it is Nye's way with words, his knack of using them to create comic yet plausible, natural moods, that converted me. Applying the same skills to Don Juan works a treat, particularly when teamed with Grandage's entirely sympathetic direction.
Christopher Oram's design sets the action in a small Mediterranean village some time during the last century, a mere backdrop against which the Don and his manservant Sganarelle, torn between loyalty and morality, can operate. Tom Hollander is dream casting for Don Juan; his natural playfulness is here channelled by Grandage so that for the first half of the 80-minute piece the Don seems literally drunk on his powers of seduction, showing a carefree, uninhibited intoxication in his words and actions. The teamwork of writer and production is exemplified in the character's contemptuous remark about "'working at' one relationship": Nye does not create the scorn in this phrase, he just supplies the opportunity for Hollander to play it beautifully. The often unjustly overlooked Anthony O'Donnell supplies less obtrusive but sterling support as Sganarelle, with Neve McIntosh and Robert East following hard behind in a quite different register as the wronged Donna Elvira and Don Juan's suffering father.
Neither Nye nor Grandage can quite pull off the Don's odd composure when the statue comes to life as his nemesis, until the attitude hardens into last-ditch defiance as he is finally hurled into hell. Most of the preceding twists and turns, though, come off splendidly: the complexities of the Don Juan-Charlotte-Peter triangle are seen to go much deeper than the superficial chat-up, and the Don's offer of a gold piece to a beggar if he will blaspheme against God is heard in chilled audience silence, no mean feat in such a secular age. Translation and production alike ride the switchback of emotion without diminishing any single stretch of the journey. Perhaps once a year I see a show which leaves me feeling it was over too soon and that I would gladly return to it simply for fun; this is such a production.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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