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London Theatre Reviews

Ph: Helen Maybanks

THE VOCATION OF HEDONISM

By JOHN NATHAN

David Tenant is somewhat miscast as the most prolific lover in the world.

You can hardly get into a London theatre these days without the spectre of Trump appearing like some Shakespearean ghost. At the Donmar Warehouse a revised version of Brecht’s Arturo Ui has the German dramatist’s version of Hitler promising to “make this country great again.” The timing of the National Theatre revival of Kushner’s Angels In America, in which that country is in the grip of a resurgent right, is undeniably significant. And the current version of another Brecht play, Life of Galileo at the Young Vic, raises the issue of fake news.

Among the first of this tranche was Patrick Marber’s production of his own play, which, when it was first staged in 2006, was already an updated, London-set version of Moliere’s original. But this new take, starring a somewhat miscast David Tenant as the best – or at least the most prolific – lover in the world has yet more additions. One of the most conspicuous of these is when Tennant’s Don confesses his sins in a way that suggests he’s proud of them.

“I’m a three-a-day man,” he says. If having sex as often as most people go to the toilet is something that impresses, you’ll be yet more impressed when you know that he is not only talking about the number of times he does it, but the number of women he does it with. “But I’m no rapist,” he assures. “I don’t grab pussy.” Thus we know that despite the trail of female misery caused by the Don, there are lines that not even he would cross – lines proudly crossed by the Donald.

It’s a witty moment. Yet the comparison highlights this production’s weakness. Trump's sexual conquests are much more a reflection of his power than his charm. With Don Juan, the opposite should be true. But as witty and raffish as Tenant is, he lacks the sexual charisma of a great lover. (My straw poll of women confirms this. All three said they would much rather watch Tenant act than sleep with him.)

Adrian Scarborough is much more convincing as the Don’s disapproving, portly valet Stan. His admiration for his master’s mastery of seduction is tempered by the fact that his boss hasn’t paid him for ages, but also by Stan’s moral compass, which may not exactly point north but is truer than his boss’s, if he has one. That slightly admiring disgust is best encapsulated in the scene set in a hospital waiting room when Don Juan chats up one woman while being fellated by another (the second being hidden under a sheet). It’s a very funny scene and the most potent of the evening because it makes you feel complicit in the Don’s misogyny. Those who laugh will know how Stan feels.

His relationship with his master embodies the social order of Marber’s London. Tenant’s Don – aka DJ – is the spoilt brat of an upper-class father (Gawn Grainger), who, though exasperated by his amoral son, looks for loopholes as a way to keep funding him rather than cutting him off. Everyone in the lower orders is worthy of DJ’s contempt, which he dishes out in one of Marber’s most eloquent speeches. He’ll take no lectures on how to live well from those who live pathetically conformist lives. 

Anna Fleischle’s design bestows a Renaissance air. Panels are decorated with Michelangelo-like clouds that could have drifted over from the Sistine Chapel. But Marber’s DJ lacks the grandiosity that might be needed to provoke the attention of angels. He makes an impassioned case that hedonism done properly is not merely a lifestyle choice but a vocation. Yet still, when the reckoning comes, you wonder if the underworld’s time might be better spent punishing someone with real transgressive heft. Someone like Don Giovanni.