Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 18 December, 2008

Kneehigh Theatre have made their reputation largely by crafting exuberantly theatrical yet always emotionally minor-key new perspectives on classic love stories, from Tristan and Isolde to Brief Encounter. After their present ambitious and dazzlingly successful venture, there is nowhere for them to go save Romeo And Juliet, and I doubt that has enough latitude of interpretation for Emma Rice and her colleagues.
The tale of Don Juan is, with that single exception, probably the ultimate story of love and loss. Scarcely on the Don's part, of course, although he may come to have an inkling of what he has rejected. But in the divers passions of Anna, Elvira and Zerlina – and even the libertine Don's manservant Leporello – one can find a whole symphony of modulations of the basic emotion. So it is here, even though the setting is now England during the 1978-79 "Winter of Discontent" and Leporello the rather less euphonious Nobby. Elvira continues to trail after Don John in her delusion that she can redeem him; Zerlina is the cleaner at the motel where the rake and his man pitch up; and Anna is now a vicar's wife whom the Don ravishes during a power-cut as she tends her dying father (the Commendatore). She is semi-complicit in the act, hoping against hope that it is her archetypally hand-wringing Anglican husband who has finally shown some spirit. The question "What kind of man does she want me to be?" rings through the piece: Zerlina's fiancé utters it, but Anna's husband clearly feels it and the Don's carnal success is due to his instinct for finding the answer in each case.
The staging is magnificent, in an urban nowheresville with freight containers hauled on- and offstage to serve as various rooms. The stage setting is done by a quartet of female supernumeraries-cum-dancers, beautifully done out in period clobber so that when cavorting they look like an audience shot from a vintage Top Of The Pops. As usual with this company, much music is played live, and adds to the disjunctions which tumble all over the place: the contrast between the tale's classic location and its new setting is maintained between the grimy, lightbulb-sputtering environment (some wonderful electrical-mishap effects) and the Spanish feel of much of the score. Extraneous numbers sound over radios and speakers, sometimes arias from Mozart's Don Giovanni and sometimes simply for period kitsch value but at one point including the most comprehensively aware use I have ever seen made of that pinnacle of ethically uncomfortable pop, The Crystals’ "He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss)".
Gísli Örn Garðarsson as the Don is less acrobatic and more swaggering than is usual for him; his wife Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir as Anna is demure with a core of fire, not unlike the actors' native Iceland. Carl Grose and Patrycja Kujawska make an affecting Everyman and -Woman as Alan and Zerlina. As Nobby, Mike Shepherd is for once not the male member of the company who puts on a dress (he does get a footballer-perm wig, though). I am unsure about the ending. In a move uncharacteristic of Kneehigh, they have somewhat simplified the morality of the final phase by minimising the degree to which the Don grows jaded and colludes in his own doom; here, the figure of the Commendatore appears to him during a drug trip, lectures him and then leaves him (presumably) overdosed. But that is my only quibble in what is the finest Kneehigh production I have yet seen, and in an audacious piece of programming by the RSC constitutes surely the most extreme anti-Christmas show of the year.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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