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Don Juan Charms The Citz

Sex and the Citizens isn’t exactly a new concept. This week’s arrival of a brand new main stage production of Don Juan, however, looks set to get audiences hot under the collar in a way that hasn’t been seen in the Gorbals-based theatre for some considerable time. What’s more, this darkest of romps involving the legendary classical philanderer who’s worked his way through any taboo going for the best part of four hundred years looks set to be reinvented for an all but unshockable twenty-first century re-telling.

“Sexuality’s an issue that never goes away,” says a breathless-sounding Jeremy Raison, who’s ripped into the play’s legacy to make it brand new. “Looking at the play now, one of the things that became clear is that it isn’t just about sex. It’s more Faustian than that, in that this man who sleeps with lots of women is eventually taken to task to the extent that he’s taken down to Hell. What we wanted to do was to try and work out what all this would mean in a contemporary context. Is Don Juan raping people? Why isn’t Don Octavio interested in Donna Anna? Also, because Don Juan was such a taboo-breaker, how do you do it in a twenty-first century climate where a lot of people still believe in God, and he’s taken down to Hell? The tag-line for this,” Raison confesses, “if we had such a thing, would be Don Juan meets Life On Mars.”

This new production, then, is Raison’s version of former Citizens director Robert David MacDonald’s translation of Carlo Goldoni’s 1736 original. Given MacDonald’s text being used as Raison’s source, it should come as no surprise that Don Juan is no stranger to The Citz. Goldoni’s classical sweep first appeared at the theatre in 1980 in a brand new version of the play credited solely to MacDonald. Phillip Prowse’s production, featuring Patrick Hannaway as Juan, was set in a huge library, with the knowledge contained within it eventually collapsing onto the action below. The production later transferred to London’s Roundhouse, but was savaged in the press.

It was 1993 before Don Juan inveigled its way back onto the Citizens stage. This time, MacDonald directed what was described as a new translation of Goldoni. It was the bi-centenary of the Italian maestro’s death, and the Citizens was the only theatre company other than the Royal Shakespeare Company to mount his work. MacDonald’s Circle Studio production was also the first of Goldoni’s Don Juan to be produced anywhere in Britain.

Here, critics observed, Andrew Wilde’s Don Juan predated both Casanova and the Marquis de Sade in his vicious philandering. It was also, as critic Michael Coveney pointed out, first performed in Venice a century after the first Don Juan play by Tirso de Molina, seventy years after Moliere's version and fifty years before da Ponte's for Mozart. MacDonald’s translation fared far better than his original text thirteen years earlier. Another fifteen years on, and given what MacDonald himself said about the limited lifespan of any translation, Raison’s approach sounds somewhat appropriately les than faithful.

“There’s about ten per cent of the original play that’s survived,” he admits. “Much of that is down to the questions that we asked, and also in a lot of ways the women in the play become more interesting. Jonathan Miller once made the point that Don Juan actually reveals more about them than himself, and in that way he’s a cipher with no back story. We’ve changed that a little, but as a male director working on Don Juan, there’s a danger that it can end up being solely about male wish fulfilment. To try and get away from that we’ve brought in a female co-director, Maxine Braham, who can bring to it an entirely different perspective about female sexuality.”

Braham has previously worked as a choreographer with companies including Opera North, the Glyndebourne Festival and Scottish Opera. Her input should add an even more explicitly physical approach to the play. There have, of course, been many Don Juans. Raison himself estimates at least a hundred, ranging from Byron and Pushkin to Joni Mitchell’s and The Pet shop Boys celebration of the legend. Most recently, playwright Patrick Marber related his 2006 version as Don Juan In Soho.

Beyond the Citizens, however, sightings of Don Juan outside of opera have been rare. Swedish choreographer Mats Ek brought his Royal Dramatic Theatre of Stockholm production of Moliere’s version to Edinburgh International Festival in 2000. It was Moliere too, who the then rookie director David McVicar turned to in 1990 for a production for his young Pen-name company before he turned the opera world on its head. Here too, McVicar made things very much of the moment, opening with Percy Sledge’s When A Man Loves A Woman serenading the audience.

With MacDonald, Prowse and now Raison relishing Don Juan, another Citizens director, Giles Havergal, appeared as Don Juan’s father in Neil Bartlett’s own look at Moliere’s version for his swansong in charge of The Lyric, Hammersmith in 2004. In 1998 Theatre Babel also looked at Moliere’s Don Juan in a version by Iain Heggie. Heggie radically reworked this in 2002 in his own production of a play he now simply called The Don at RSAMD. Here, Heggie reimagined Don Juan as an ageing glam rock star who grows a tad too fond of the under-age groupies who fawn over him. Given its similarities to the real life affairs of Jonathan King and Gary Glitter, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that a professional theatre company has yet to tackle the play. But then, for all the contemporary mores explored both by Heggie and, in different ways, by Raison, just how shocking can Don Juan be?

“It’s very difficult to tell what people are shocked by," says Raison. “There are still taboos out there, and we still make moral judgements on how people behave. For instance, when Vanishing Point did Little Otik here recently, there were two graphic scenes of fellatio, and a suggestion of paedophilia where you didn’t actually see anything. The thing that affected people the most was the apparent paedophilia. So we’ve given this a sixteen plus rating, and casting it we’ve brought in actors who are prepared to go with some of the things we’ll be dealing with and won’t flinch from them. Don Juan himself has to have an ambivalence about him. He has to be attractive and sexy, but be able to convey the fact that he’s really not very nice. But sex, like Do Juan, will go on for ever. The root of the play, about what sex is about at any particular moment, that’s never going to go away.”

Don Juan, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, Wed-October 11

The Herald, September 16th 2008



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