Jumping Bean Productions show themselves well able to stage an inventive and intelligent fringe production with Ranjit Bolt's adaptation of Jose Zorrilla's 1844 play Don Juan Tenorio. The bad news is that this care and consideration doesn't extend to sustaining the play's zip.
Bolt's verse is as exuberant as we have come to expect. He has the devil's own knack for sticking Ogden Nash-like rhymes on the end of pentameter couplets and quatrains, and pulling them off magnificently: at one point the ne'er-do-well nobleman's servant muses, "Don Juan without some heinous wrong to do/Would be like – what? – a cow without its moo."
Zorrilla's version of the Don Juan myth ends with the Don's repentance as the final grain of sand runs out of his life-timer, redeemed by the love of the dead Doña Ines. As ever, though, it is his sinful panache rather than his ultimate salvation which provides the enduring interest.
Shaun French is a fine rakehell, with a swagger in his hips and in his resonant voice. He copes well with Don Juan's amorality, which here is cold- rather than hot-blooded; this Don breaks hearts, heads and hymens not out of a passionate nature, but simply because he can. In terms of audience attention, French has little real competition. Only the rival Don Luis is written to a remotely comparable depth, but the callowness of Nicholas Fordham's portrayal leaves Don Juan with a clear field. Similarly, Chaya Bernstein overplays the wide-eyed innocence of the postulant nun Doña Ines, making her character rather too sugary to be a credible agent of her beloved's redemption.
These imbalances matter little in the heat of performance. What does hobble the production is a bewildering disregard for pace. The New End (a converted hospital mortuary) can accommodate a larger and more complex set than your average fringe theatre, and director Anna Coombs and designer Emily Gottlieb take full advantage of this. But their sedate scene-changes, ended by characters clapping to bring the lights back up, fritter away the play's momentum through a long 85-minute first "half". After the interval, the scene-change problem grows worse and is exacerbated by the natural slackening of the final acts, with their passages of capital-A Acting. The final sense is of frustration that a company can be so adept at using their own and the venue's resources, yet let those of the play fend for themselves.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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