John Wright, the undisputed guv'nor of mask work in British theatre, has in the last couple of years busied himself less in this area than in trying to utilise similar character archetypes in improvisational work with non-masked actors in such companies as Backstairs Influence and his own outfit Told By An Idiot. Here he directs a quartet of actors from the Commotion company in a fine though flawed piece worked up from impro sessions around the figure of Don Juan.
This is not exactly the standard Don Juan story. For a start, it is set in a Polish florist's shop. Papa Zadek and his two daughters, Agnieszka and Rósza, find their joyous preparations for Rósza's wedding flung into disarray when a charismatic gentleman arrives, repeatedly buying out their entire stock for bouquets to virtually every woman in the town. Naturally, the gentleman (only ever identified by the initial "J" with which he signs his cards) comes to turn his attentions first on Agnieszka and then, on her very wedding day, upon Rósza herself.
The Zadeks' characters are briefly delineated – doting but absent-minded Papa (Gerry Flanagan) kept in line by Rosalind Paul's brisk though girlish Agnieszka, while Rósza juggles apprehension and bliss at the imminent prospect of her marriage – but first and foremost the entire family are innocents of the type which fascinates Wright. His preferred strategy is to establish a set of virtuous fools, engage them in a few bouts of physical comedy, then expose them to larger tragic forces to telling and poignant effect.
On this occasion, however, it meets with only partial success. The main weakness is that Rick Zoltowski as The Gentleman does not fully submit to an archetype along with the other three; he is fleetingly the incarnation of the Trickster or the Devil, but more often seems to be trying to fashion a personality through his own (largely verbal) work instead of letting one emerge from his interactions with the others. Thus, for example, the mute tango-style seduction of Agnieszka has a far greater impact than the more dramatically crucial but much wordier temptation scene in which "J" lures Rósza (Sarah Langford) to him. Likewise, Rósza's own subsequent awakening to her womanly potential has only faltering effect, constituting something of a blind alley before the play gets back on course with a neat twist of the "nemesis from beyond the grave" device.
What this fitfully unsatisfactory but nevertheless enjoyable Don Juan demonstrates above all is the vital importance of wholehearted commitment to a method such as Wright's. When it works, it works like a charm, but when it does not, the sensation is akin to travelling in a "kangaroo-ing" car.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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