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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
Don Juan
by Lizzie Loveridge

Where there is weakness I shall find opportunity. It is after all the duty of intelligence to thrive on the vices of its own particular century?
--- Don Juan
Don Juan
James Wilby as Don Juan
(Photo: John Haynes)
Neil Bartlett is sadly bowing out of his tenure as the Artistic Director of the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith. His farewell production is his new translation of Molière's play Don Juan which he also directs. I have greatly enjoyed Bartlett's translations and adaptations and although I regret his leaving Hammersmith, I understand that this will allow him time to concentrate on more writing. The good news for America is that he plans to spend some time in New York.

The play opens with strains of Mozart's Don Giovanni, but Bartlett's modern dress version of Don Juan has a resonance which is as true in the twenty-first century as it was in the seventeenth. His theme is hypocrisy, the justification which Don Juan gives for his "love them and leave them"quot; approach, although there are those of us in the audience who can recognise the ambivalent man, the commitment phobic, the man who desires that which he cannot have.

The story is well known and probably medieval in origin. Don Juan (James Wilby), a Spanish nobleman, recklessly seduces women and mocks the dead before being condemned to Hell. De Molina first wrote this in the form of a play in the 1630s in Spanish and Molière picked it up some thirty years later with his version in French which was shelved although not formally censored. Bartlett is interested in the apparent contradictions in the play, the ambiguity and the mixed messages one gets from the main characters. Is Don Juan as much a victim as a predator? Is Sganarelle an abettor or a detractor?

The play opens with Don Juan's servant, Sganarelle (Paul Ritter) commenting on his master Don Juan, telling the audience of the Don's shortcomings. Sganarelle extols the virtues of smoking, how smokers politely share their cigarettes, offering them to each other, anticipating each other's need. It is one of the finest and funniest openings that I have heard in the theatre in a long time. We can understand why this was the part that Molière himself took.

Of course we know that Paul Ritter is an outstandingly talented comedic actor and Bartlett's witty lines are timed to a treat. Paul Ritter's divulging cheeky chappie servant has no illusions about his master while explaining to the audience why he has to carry on working for him. He uses many explicit gestures to illustrate and animate his condemnation of Don Juan and his comedy is given a physical edge. Sganarelle is indignant and upright, a working class moralist over whom the question sits: why does he choose to work for such a shameless man?

By contrast James Wilby's tall, blonde, handsome Don Juan is very, very shallow. He is as slippery as the shine on his patent leather shoes. Like the artist who has yet to paint his best work, Juan describes himself as the lover whose greatest passion is always his next. We see first a ruined woman, a nun seduced by him Donna Elvira (Felicity Dean). Juan turns his attentions to two hotel maids Charlotte (Kirsty Bushell) and Mathurine (Patti Clare) and in a well constructed scene plays both of them simultaneously on stage, convincing each that he loves her and is not interested in the other. The fact that these women are so much lower in class than he is, serves only to show that Juan is interested only in sexual conquest. Having rejected Elvira when she came to remind him of his promise to her, he desires her when she returns repentant and dressed as a nun.

I suppose it is inevitable that it will all end badly. Don Juan listens to no one, not his father, not the disembodied voice of the dead man in the form of a statue and Hell is inevitable. The set is a red, black and gold hotel room, the colours seeming to suggest that Don Juan is already in Hell. Even the potted palms are a glossy back. The statue in polished bronze looks like one of those street acts in Covent Garden who will spin round to startle visitors to the capital.

I most enjoyed Bartlett's jokes, those moments of meta-theatricality when Sganarelle says that the Don's speech sounds like a speech he's learnt from a play, or admires the plasterwork of the Lyric's proscenium arch or when Donna Elvira's veil seems to fly off, he asks the question on all our lips, "How did they do that?" There are lots of other small jokes for the aware, quotes from Shakespeare's Hamlet and the definitive, most wonderfully mixed metaphor and cliché ridden speech from Sganarelle "… a Man, in the midst of this life, is perched no more securely than a bird on a branch; and that branch is of course part of the whole tree; and a branch in time saves nine; and wood is thicker than water; fine words butter no parsnips, and there is no such thing as Society!" Splendid!

Don Juan
Written by Molière
In a new translation by Neil Bartlett
Directed by Neil Bartlett
Starring: James Wilby and Paul Ritter
With: Felicity Dean, Giles Havergal, James Bellorini, Giles Fagan, Kirsty Bushell, Patti Clare, Gregory Cox
Designer: Neil Bartlett
Lighting Designer: Bruno Poet
Sound: Nick Manning
Running time: Two hours 15 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 08700 500 511
Booking to 30th October 2004
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 4th October 2004 performance at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, King Street, London W6 (Tube: Hammersmith)
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