West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Opened 24 June, 1997

As a performer, Toby Jones is an exceptionally gifted exponent of theatrical clowning, which made me rather perplexed by the muted, deferential register of his production last year of Molière's The Hypochondriac. Such an approach proves far better suited to the tragicomedy of the same author's Don Juan.

Adaptor Edward Kemp has given the play a major overhaul. He has conflated characters to avoid rampant doubling, and relocated the action to an unspecified Latin American site in the early part of this century; the latter move grounds in "magical realism" the fantastical conclusion of the statue coming to life to drag the philandering Don into the grave (here Kemp also stitches in elements of the Mozart/Da Ponte opera to lessen, though not entirely eradicate, the perfunctory feeling of Molière's ending), and also facilitates some by-play around the tradition of the Day of the Dead at one point Don Juan escapes the jilted, revenge-seeking Doña Elvira by disguising himself in a skeleton costume.

Comedy and contemplation are finely balanced in Jones's production. Most of the laughs are either treated as incidental to the main plot or arise from peripheral business (these marginal giggles being the most palpable indicators of Jones the clown). The Don's manservant Sganarelle, as played by Patrick Brennan, looks, sounds and even behaves more than a little like Clive Swift in his role as long-suffering foil to Patricia Routledge: good-hearted and put-upon, nice but dim. He does, however, deliver in the second act a marvellous stream of free-association similar to the old "Why are fire engines red?" joke, purporting to prove that his master is damned.

Martin Marquez as Don Juan neither swaggers nor twirls his metaphorical moustachios; he is simply committed, as an individual, to a life of atheistic libertinage, which he defends in several lengthy exchanges with Sganarelle. His more extreme acts, such as offering a gold coin to a hermit if the latter will blaspheme against heaven or lying about his conversion to the straight-and-narrow, seem included solely to rack up the amorality points in order to imbue his ultimate fate with an air of justice. (At one point, also, his speech on hypocrisy as a private vice but a public virtue is eerily reminiscent of a recently disgraced public figure; he all but mentions simple swords and trusty shields.)

Angela Davies's versatile set, consisting of a doll's-house cabana amid a sandy wilderness, cheekily parodies Ian MacNeil's design for An Inspector Calls. Apparently the press performance contained one or two technical hitches, although nothing of the sort was noticeable from the auditorium. There is no hope of imposing a uniform tone upon the proceedings, any more than with one of Shakespeare's "problem" plays, but Jones does a fine job of counterpoising the play's gravity and levity.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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