Is Patrick Marber the busiest man in theatre at the moment? His National Theatre adaptation of Hedda Gabler has just closed (but will reappear on a UK tour this autumn), his acclaimed production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties is still going strong at the Apollo, and now he directs David Tennant in a revival of his one of his own plays just round the corner at Wyndham’s.
Don Juan in Soho, Marber’s free-flowing update of Moliere’s 1665 comedy, was first aired at the Donmar Warehouse 11 years ago, with Rhys Ifans taking the rakish titular role – a well-heeled hedonist living it up in London. Now, Tennant – currently on screen in season three of ITV’s Broadchurch – steps into Ifans’ shoes.
Tennant’s no stranger to seducing on the Wyndham’s stage, having appeared there as Benedick in Josie Rourke’s Much Ado in 2011. But can he shake off the sci-fi celebrity of Doctor Who and the grizzly grittiness of Broadchurch to deliver as Marber’s “Satan in a suit from Saville Row”? Will Marber’s play, received lukewarmly in 2006, worm its way into the critics’ good books in 2017? Is Don Juan in Soho an evening of delightful derring-do, or tawdry titillation?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Don Juan in Soho – An updated update
Good, and funny, but lacking the fear-factor of Moliere’s original – that was the verdict on Don Juan in Soho’s first outing. Marber has slightly updated his text – there’s now a few lines about Trump and the populist politics of 2017 – but is it enough?
For Mark Shenton (The Stage , ★★), it isn’t. “It’s a shallow and dispiriting portrait of a shallow and dispiriting man,” he writes, adding that “while it seeks to charm and outrage in equal measure, it ends up being charmless and creepy”.
He’s not alone. Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph , ★★) opines that this “updated version of Moliere’s hoary 1665 comedy strikes me as pants” and that “much of what aspires to make us laugh sounds like someone merely passing for a wit”. For Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard , ★★★) meanwhile, “the writing never feels fierce enough”.
Quentin Letts (Daily Mail , ★★★) concedes that “Marber’s writing is full of verve” but espies some glaring hypocrisy as well: “This is a play trying to have it both ways, exposing decadence while simultaneously charging big money for that very sort of titillation”.
There is another camp, however. For Sarah Crompton (What’sOnStage , ★★★★), this is a “bracing, brutal and ferociously funny update”, in which “issues of identity, selfishness and morality become ever more pressing”. For Ann Treneman (Times , ★★★★), it is “funny, acerbic, biting”, “a morality play that won’t take itself seriously.” And for Michael Billington (Guardian , ★★★★), Marber’s play “acquires a subversiveness it lacked on its first outing.”
Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out , ★★★) steers something of a middle course. “If you’re made of sterner moral stuff than me you may walk out in disgust at a show that kind of sort of glorifies the objectification of women,” he confesses, “but it’s all so puppyish and giddy that I just found it easier to shut my conscience off and laugh”.
Don Juan in Soho – The Desmond Tutu of titillation
Don Juan – rechristened DJ here – isn’t the type of role you’d immediately associate an ex-Time Lord or a world-weary Scottish detective with, but Tennant has proved himself a compelling, versatile stage presence since his career took off in the late nineties. Does his DJ rank alongside his Jimmy Porter, his Hamlet, and his Richard II?
In Billington’s eyes, Marber’s revival is a hit, and a hit because of Tennant. “It is Tennant’s performance that gives the play a disturbing ambivalence,” he writes, adding that his “real skill lies in suggesting that DJ is a priapic Peter Pan: a man-boy, sadly incapable of love”.
Such praise is echoed elsewhere. “Tennant is brilliant, his gangly form made to play a man always on the prowl, restless, funny, incorrigible,” writes Treneman, while Crompton gushes about a “performance full of sexy grace”.
“He spins and capers and lounges, callous and languid, fey, filthy and fascinating,” Libby Purves (TheatreCat , ★★★★) describes. “Here is the great seducer, the ultimate hedonist and prophet of unfettered pleasure” according to Purves, and “a crazed mix of James Bond and the 13th Duke of Wybourne” according to Lukowski.
“He’s an absolute bastard,” confirms Eleanor Turney (Exeunt ), “but a charming one”.
Even in the negative reviews, Tennant escapes largely unscathed. “You’ve got to admire the cojones of an actor who manages to lend a certain gravitas as well as his customary twinkle to skirt-chasing attitudes of a repellent, unreconstructed variety,” writes Cavendish, while Shenton remarks that Tennant “has swank and an appropriately sleazy swagger that’s fitting to the character” and Hitchings admires the “exciting physicality and air of sexy mischief” Tennant brings.
Only Letts is unimpressed. “The idea is to present him as some sort of Russell Brand figure, seedily irresistible to slinky sirens,” he writes, “but Mr Tennant is not quite feral enough a figure to pull off that transformation. He is too quizzical, possibly too keen to be popular. He looks more like ITV political editor Robert Peston on a busy news day”.
Don Juan in Soho – Scarborough in Soho
There’s more to Don Juan in Soho than an uneven text and a debauched Doctor Who, though. There’s Adrian Scarborough, for one thing, as DJ’s long-suffering sidekick Stan.
Most think they make a good double act. “Tennant’s rangy elegance is beautifully complemented by Adrian Scarborough’s Stan: puglike and faithful, torn between humane disapproval of this monster and unrequited love,” writes Purves. “Tennant is matched by Scarborough,” agrees Crompton, “whose own conflicted feelings tug and draw him in the play’s troubled waves”.
“Scarborough is a delight,” for Hitchings, a study in “long-suffering dignity” according to Philip Fisher (British Theatre Guide ) and “nicely exasperated” according to Cavendish.
And there’s Anna Fleischle’s design, too – described by Crompton as “smoke-filled setting, swiftly switching between Soho squares and sanctuaries” – which is unevenly received. Billington wishes it “did more to evoke the raffish squalor of Soho” and Shenton observes that “it seems superfluous to sex up a play that is already so strenuously about sex,” but Treneman applauds it as “functional with moments of inspiration and even magic”.
Don Juan in Soho – Is it any good?
It’s not amazing, for sure, and it’s certainly not for 12 year-old Doctor Who fans; there’s a scene in which DJ is fellated by one woman while chatting up another, who’s husband he’s just left in a coma.
Most agree that Tennant is excellent, simultaneously charismatic and repellent opposite Scarborough’s splendid Stan, but there’s little consensus over Marber’s play in general. Some think its matured into a fine vintage. Others find it as sour-tasting as ever.
If you’re a committed Tennant fan, you won’t want to miss a performance of seductive degeneracy. If you’re not, Marber’s revival is far from a must-see.