By turns lurid, comic and unpleasant, Kneehigh Theatre’s reworking of the Don Juan legend is never less than a theatrical tour-de-force.
The setting is Britain in 1978, just as prime minister James Callaghan ducks out of a widely anticipated general election and Britain heads towards the winter of discontent and the triumph of Thatcherism. A group of pickets huddles round a brazier, power cuts enhance or foil seductions and a rock band periodically kicks into life.
It’s a period, between the pill and Aids, when sexuality could in theory be as uninhibited as you chose. Don John, a remarkable creation in Gisli Orn Gardarsson’s Sid Vicious-lookalike performance, represents sexual drive completely disconnected from any sense of social inhibition or responsibility. Even more strikingly, though, he represents boredom and a disturbing emotional vacuousness.
However, the question which primarily seems to interest adaptor and director Emma Rice is what’s in it for the women. There is the deluded Elvira, who imagines she can connect with depths in John which appear not to exist, vicar’s wife Anna whose dying father John shoots, and the bride Zerlina who can’t resist John’s advances despite her love for her bumbling fiancé Alan.
Alan and Derek, the vicar, are types of well-meaning but ineffectual males who are infinitely more sensitive to female welfare yet at some primitive level seem always doomed to failure in competition with the Don Juan type.
Mozart’s Don Giovanni is the principal model, and fragments of Mozart’s music even burst through occasionally. In fact, the whole concept of the piece is, in the broadest sense, operatic. Kneehigh’s fellow Cornish company, Cscape Dance, is incorporated into the action which includes a movable shipping container in which various scenes are staged.
Composer and music director Stu Barker has concocted an elaborate and eclectic musical score which, in contrast to the rock elements, includes some delicate interludes for mandolin and harp.
Beyond its sexual politics, Don John seems to suggest that British society as a whole turned down a heartless, self-centred path at the end of the 1970s – a cycle which romantics might like to believe is coming to an end with the current economic crisis. But as you might expect of Kneehigh, Don John is longer on theatrical spectacle than social analysis.
* Running time: 2hr 40min. In repertory with Romeo and Juliet until January 10. Also touring to Birmingham Rep (Feb 17-21) and Warwick Arts Centre (Feb 24-28).