All entries for Tuesday 23 December 2008

December 23, 2008

Don John @ The Courtyard Theatre

I'm always intrigued by the RSC 'Christmas Show'. Understandably, the company doesn't put on a panto, but there is usually something at this kind of year for all the family. A few years back, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe filled the slot, followed by Great Expectations. The Complete Works Festival saw the panto-esque Merry Wives: The Musical, while last year the Little Angel Theatre brought the marvellous Fantastic Mr. Fox to Stratford. This year, though, seems to be an exception. Romeo and Juliet seems to be pulling in young audiences, but is nothing more than a mediocre straight production of the play, while Kneehigh's long-awaited return to Stratford with Don John comes with an over-14 age recommendation. Fun for all the family this ain't.

Don John, based on Mozart's opera, was a faintly depressing tale of soulless sex and aimlessness, set in the 'Winter of Discontent' in 1978 Britain. Strikers huddled on stage around a brazier, actors climbed over empty shipping crates and Prime Minister James Callaghan's voice crackled over a portable transistor radio. Into this bleak world entered Don John, a hollow-eyed misfit who lounged above the action and picked out the girls, one by one, whom he planned to seduce, enjoy and forget.

The play had little sympathy for John himself, refusing to flinch from the destructive effects of his careless actions. His path crossed those of two separate couples: Derek the vicar and his wife Anna, and Zerlina the cleaner with her fiance, Alan. Into the mess stumbled Elvira, a previous conquest of John convinced she was the one to 'save him' from himself. And, accompanying John all the way, the rather pathetic figure of Nobby, charged with taking polaroids of the girls and cleaning up John's mess after him.

'Care' was the theme here, the emotional and familial care that John neither understood nor took interest in learning. One of Kneehigh's recurring obsessions is with the family and enduring relationships, and those concerns have never been more dominant than here. Alan and Zerlina's tender affection for each other revolved around books and words, the two introducing each other to their native languages, and her moment of wild lust with John, knocking over her own wedding cake, was nothing more than a moment of shame that was easily overcome in the cold light of day. Gisli Orn Gardarsson was wildly sensual and physical as the eponymous anti-hero, always dangerous in his seductions, but ultimately the safety of Alan's genuine love was enough to leave John forgotten and irrelevant.

Sympathy for John came from the entire lack of self-control that led him to repeatedly destructive behaviour. As much as John proclaimed he was enjoying himself, Gardasson played him with a restless sadness that showed him aware of the emptiness of his existence but afraid to confront the fact. His cold treatment of Elvira ("I don't need to be saved") was symptomatic of his pushing away of hope or change, afraid to ever pause in case his past caught up with him.

The most moving plotline, though, revolved around Craig Johnson's Derek and Nina Dogg Filippusdottir's Anna. Anna, trapped by having to look after her dying father, was also sexually frustrated, and her desperate attempts to undo Derek's trousers while her father slept were heartbreaking as Derek denied her the one thing she needed. John subsequently entered and blindfolded Anna, "cheering her up" as he later put it. This trickery (dramatically and emotionally complex, simultaneously rape and liberation for Anna) was compounded by his accidental shooting of Anna's father, the guilt of which weighed upon John for the remainder of the show until his death. Derek was far more than a simple gulled husband, however; his first appearance, presiding over an empty church, was both funny in the ridiculousness of the situation but also upsetting; his isolation leading him to cry out against God for the situation he had left the country in.

The set was one of the most complex yet seen in the Courtyard, a series of iron containers piled high up to the ceiling. One of these was dragged to the main stage on several occasions, folding out to reveal a scene inside, locating Britain's heart within the empty containers that represented the financial decline; which in itself, of course, is particularly resonant at the moment. The evocation of 1978 was one of the show's most successful aspects, particularly in the use of pop songs from that year to underscore the action and the continual reminders, including a black and white telly that showed clips from old programmes (and the Test Card during the interval). The live band were particularly impressive, playing a score that was unmistakably a Stu Barker creation but rooted itself in the rock stylings of the period.

A familiarity with Don Giovanni would, I think, have helped me appreciate the references to the opera (indeed, bits of the score were integrated into the action), but this was a play that stood on its own feet. The associations between 1978 and 2008 are prescient, but this production was strongest in the more timeless ideas of familial warmth and heartfelt relationships. As John descended into ill health, he 'saw' Anna reunited with her father and Alan and Zerlina renewing their engagement, evocations of the 'care' which he had ignored through an existence that, ultimately, meant nothing. His only positive impact - and a backhanded one at that - was Anna's realisation of her own potential for freedom, unrestricted by a feeble husband and needy father. The play finished, though, with John dying alone on the ground as darkness fell around him. Not a festive message, but a powerful one.

Luckily, we didn't get to go out on a gloomy note; following the curtain calls, Barry White started pumping out over the soundtrack and the cast pulled up audience members to start a dance on stage. The audience had been relatively quiet for most of the night, but by the end appeared to have been thoroughly won over by Kneehigh's inimitable good spirits.

One last note - as John died, the radio played the shipping broadcast. Following the RSC's The Tempest and Filter's Twelfth Night, this is the third time in two years that this programme has been used onstage in Stratford. Why so popular all of a sudden?!


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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