10.i.2008. Melbourne Theatre Company: Don Juan in Soho. Written By Patrick Marber. Cast includes Craig Annis, Angus Cerini, Daniel Frederiksen, Katie-Jean Harding, Bob Hornery, Kate Jenkinson, Bert Labonte, Christen O’Leary, James Saunders, Dan Wyllie. Directed By Peter Evans. Set & costume designer: Fiona Crombie. LX designer: Matt Scott. Composer: David Franzke. Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne, until 16 Feb 2008.
The best thing about Don Juan in Soho is that, at 90 or so minutes, it's mercifully short. (Now that wasn't a good start. But what else to say? Since I've decided to dedicate some time to proper theatre reviews, not a whole lot of decent theatre passed my door.)
It has been said that Dan Wyllie is miscast, that his DJ (as our protagonist is here known) lacks playful suaveness, that there is too much applied effort, too much struggle; this, however, implies that there is a qualitative difference between his and the remaining performances, whereas this audience member felt that the entire cast was mishandled, pushed into an effortful sort of acting. While Katie-Jean Harding as the humanitarian unbeddable wife is solely responsible for the little pathos that squeezes through, it is Daniel Frederiksen as DJ's servant Stan, the holder of the BlackBerry, who resists the collective acting catastrophe most consistently. Sganarelle is certainly the character in the Don Juan universe with greatest interest to an actor, and Frederiksen creates one that never slips into easy parody, subtly balancing out the over- and the under-stated. His almost constant presence on stage almost, but never quite, saves the production from being unwatchable. Everything around Frederiksen is a sort of half-arsed train crash. The actors run through their lines in that theatrical rush of mangled emotions, faux surprises and revelations, running from one end of the stage to another as if it has meant anything since Brecht (the acting verisimilitude of opera – but the main purpose of opera, at least, is singing). The stage design doesn't know what it is doing, and music is used to create bursts of franticness in between the already jumbled scenes. Every line is shouted, every fellatio overwinked at, every transgression transfigured into grotesque.
The resulting play is not comical, and certainly not seducing. It is a Don Juan that handles sex with no sensuality, transgression with no flair, and hedonism with no gusto. Ultimately, we get the old MTC effect: it feels like nobody wants to be here, doing this. Not the actors, not the director, not the light technician, not even Patrick Marber himself, and least of all the audience. Nobody is enjoying themselves. (I can imagine an entire new generation of subscribers coming out of the Arts Centre with a sigh; yes, well, it's all fine, this theatre thing, but let's not do it next year.) The entire purpose of this exercise seems to be filling a gap in the relatively well-funded MTC season with yet another play that made money in London or New York. And if the play did it originally due to the qualities of the casting, direction, well, let's disregard that, because the play, we all know, is the text and can be mishandled in whichever way will make it more palatable to the imagined conservative, senior-citizen and MTC subscriber.
The result? Since text itself has little meaning without the tone of voice and the gesture (only about 5% of our communication is strictly verbal), Marber's play may have been the sexiest, most alluring ode to joie de vivre out there (although I somehow doubt it), we wouldn't know. MTC stages a moralistic story of sin and punishment, akin to those biblical tales of bad boys punished and good boys rewarded that Mark Twain wrote delicious little parodies of good 150 years ago. There is that in the DJ canon, alright, but there is more. In a storyline that everyone contributed to, absolute fidelity to a text, any text, is unnecessary. Or a political choice.
Which brings us back to Marber. Can I claim that he wanted DJ to be a spitting, shouting, deranged MTC-creature that seems to sleep with women out of drug-fuelled compulsion and/or manic depression? Perhaps. There is an element of truth in there, the play is well-documented, I know plenty of people who live such lives: in London, Rome, Zagreb, all over the US, mercifully few in Melbourne (Australia doesn't have quite the level of open debauchery, for all sorts of reasons). That the prostitutes are Russian, even, is racist but fair. But because of the way it comes across – a moralistic tale where sin is ugly and punishment just, delivered to the fancily dressed, restrained MTC auditorium where nobody ever puts a foot on a chair – it strikes me as the right-wing play par excellence.
There would be a way out. Criminology, for all its flaws, gave some psychological insight into its deviant, drug-crazy and sex-obsessed characters, as a way to connect their haphazard lives to the bigger human drama out there. As a way to say, well, alright, but it's all a part of the same game. In contrast, not an ounce of glory is left to dust sex, hedonism or transgression with after Marber and MTC have finished with it. Not an ounce.
It is useful here to import wholesale Giulia's comment on the Turner Prize, because she identifies the same cultural tendency, within the same civilisation:
And I knew that the Turner Prize reached its aim: it did for contemporary art what the Booker Prize did for the novel, turning it into the perfect mixture of good feelings and morbid curiosities, apparent rebellion towards the society but only within the safe boundaries of political correctness… giving the Guardian-readers from all over the world the possibility of feeling like they have appreciated something intellectual without the need for any actual engagement with what is in front of them: we'll tell you what's good, and we'll carefully select something that will only shock and disturb you and stimulate you in the measure in which you are already anticipating to be shocked and disturbed and stimulated.
Yet, with all due disapproval, let's give credit to those who pull it off, who trick us all, not just bore to death. The London premiere of Don Juan in Soho may have been entertaining, slick, funny, well-cast and -directed. Faced with the MTC debacle, however, had I had a choice, I would have much rather spent 90 minutes in between the two halves of Damien Hirst's cow.