Last night saw the opening of David Tennant’s latest play! I make no secret of the fact he has been my favourite stage actor ever since 2008’s Hamlet and I’d been looking forward to finally seeing him live on stage in a non-Shakespeare role. This was my second trip to the play (having been to the first preview on 17th March), allowing me to see how the production has settled over the preview run.
Don Juan in Soho is the latest incarnation in a long line of Don Juan stories, some better known than others and Patrick Marber’s play draws on one of these classics, Moliere’s 1665 Don Juan. Whether you’ve ever seen the opera Don Giovanni, a film or play, the character is someone most people know – Don Juan, the Casanova of his time, sleeping his way through the ladies thanks to his wit and charm and that’s exactly what you get at the Wyndham’s Theatre.
Tennant is “DJ”, whose aristocratic family is hugely wealthy. He has lived a privileged life during which he has never had to work or think about anything other than satisfying his own primal needs. Set in modern day London and Soho in particular, DJ gallivants around the city, flirting and seducing every woman he passes (he is after all “magnificently fu*kable” if he does say so himself!), while his long-suffering servant Stan (the brilliant Adrian Scaborough) follows dutifully behind, clearing up his mess and acting as commentator for the audience. Whether he does it because he cares about DJ after all their years together or simply to get his much sought after pay, you’re never quite sure!
When we meet them, DJ has just returned from his honeymoon with Elvira and yet, to him, she is already a memory; she’s a woman he pursued so fiercely, simply to sleep with and take her innocence. His absolute lack of regret or sorrow at how he has hurt her, by immediately deserting her, infuriates her two brothers, who swear that one day he will pay for his actions. Then at the height of his frivolous behaviour, he receives a stark message from a stone statue of Charles II!
Put simply, this production is bonkers; absolutely, utterly bonkers and because of that I did enjoy it, but at the same time, I can see its weaknesses.
First and foremost, the greatest strength of the production is the relationship between its two main characters, DJ and Stan and the fact that they are played superbly by Tennant and Scarborough, who have a wonderful chemistry on stage. Both individually and together they bring an energy to the stage that you cannot help but enjoy. Scarborough’s Stan is funny, sarcastic and tragic. You like him immediately and cannot help but feel sorry for him as he grows ever more fed up with his life, as simply the servant to a man who never shows him appreciation in a meaningful way (or indeed even pays him)! His asides to the audience are also a great way of setting the tone for the character of DJ before we even meet him and add wonderful moments of humour throughout, as he implores us not to be taken in by DJ in the same way his many women are.
Tennant is of course the big draw to this production and when the play itself is so strange, it needs an actor of his calibre in the lead. DJ is not a likeable character and yet through Tennant, you can’t help but warm to him despite his actions. For fans of the actor, you’ll be able to spot glimpses of previous roles (especially the playfulness of Casanova and the dark depravity of Killgrave), as he bounds about the stage.
Throughout the first half, we follow him on his mission to bed whatever woman crosses his path and while you despair at his nerve, he makes you laugh too, as Marber’s dialogue trips off his tongue. Perhaps part of DJ’s appeal is because of the very point he makes in his rant in the second half – that although he is viewed to be a disgusting, dishonest human being, he may be more honest than any of us. He doesn’t pretend to be something he isn’t and he refuses to apologise for who he is and how he lives his life, whereas the rest of the world around him seems, to him, to be desperately trying to please, to be approved of, or is indeed putting on an act to hide something darker (“the priests prey, with an e” being a particularly bold line). I did enjoy his speech as he rails against modern society’s need for validation in the most superficial of ways – “Like me, friend me, follow me” and “Welcome to my vlog, today I bought a plum!” I couldn’t help thinking that maybe the man had a point!
However, as much as I love seeing Tennant on stage and as much fun as his and Scarborough’s scenes in this play are, everything else is rather average. All the other characters are two-dimensional, the result being that all the other performances feel weak and irrelevant. I didn’t even feel particularly sorry for Elvira, the character supposedly representing good. In fact, I didn’t really care about her at all.
I also felt there was too much padding of scenes in this play for the sake of it. It’s already a fairly short production (2 hours including a 20 minute interval) and yet it could easily be cut down further, for example, the dance sequences, which add nothing to the story and feel unnecessary (yes, I see the link to opera, but they still felt a bit pointless). In fact, I’m not sure why there even needs to be an interval at all. The preview run has however resulted in some tweaks to the scenes involving the statue, which thankfully make this less cheesy than my first visit. Its later appearances are swathed in smoke now, a very wise choice, especially in the scene in which it arrives to take DJ on a journey, which now looks much less ridiculous than it did (it’s still a statue driving a pedicab though, so it’s never not going to be nuts)!
Overall, I had a good time at Don Juan in Soho. Fans of David Tennant will love it, as he flirts his way across the stage, with a sly smile here and a dirty sentence there (he’s the Ghandi of gang bangs didn’t you know?). There is a magic he brings to his performances that will always thrill me in a way few actors can achieve. It was also fun to see him away from Shakespeare for a change and Adrian Scarborough is a joy to watch. However, I’m not sure whether it’ll appeal to a wider audience. Don’t go expecting a serious, substantial play or you’ll be disappointed, but if a couple of hours of innuendo and silliness appeals to you, then this may be for you!
Don Juan in Soho continues its run at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 10th June 2017. For more information and availability, visit the website here. You can also enter the daily TodayTix online lottery for £20 front row day seats via the TodayTix app. See here for further details.