It’s dream casting. With Peter O’Toole’s loucheness and Mick Jagger’s legs, Rhys Ifans’ Don Juan has an almost impossibly relaxed swagger betraying both aristocracy and arrogance. When this head boy of hedonism cries, “Down with selfishness and up with me,” it’s impossible not to agree. In Patrick Marber’s often startlingly funny update of Moliere’s portrait of a rake’s progress to hell, Ifans’ magnetic performance banishes problems that traditionally bedevil this darkest of comedies.
Marber’s work is not simply a translation. The new title “Don Juan in Soho” signals the fact that, although Marber (“Closer”) sticks almost religiously to the story, structure and character outlines of the original, his version is about more than just moving from 1665 to the present day.
Instead of Moliere’s portrait of shock at licentiousness and blasphemy on display in a strict society, Marber’s Soho — London’s red-light district — is a microcosm of a culture that hypocritically censures but worships celebrity and selfishness. As his abandoned wife, Elvira (Laura Pyper), says, he is “entranced by sensation — you share this sickness with the society that spawned you.”
With everyone aware that the central character is heading straight to hell, this drama is usually scuppered by inevitability. This version pulls off the considerable trick of creating suspense thanks not only to Marber but to director Michael Grandage’s glittering production.
Instead of falling into the trap of signaling the depravity of the protagonist and the world he inhabits, Grandage follows the line of the script where Stan, Don Juan’s young Cockney sidekick (a winningly direct and fast-paced Stephen Wight) says of his master, “Ever seen a dictator with blood on his hands? Never. First the manicure, then the massacre.”
Grandage is intent upon disguise. The design team make everything as attractive as possible, leaving the actors and text to provide the moral tone.
The action opens in a jet-black, chic Schrager-style hotel lobby; the color goes on to dominate Christopher Oram’s sets, from the comfortable gentlemen’s club of Don Juan’s father to a bald Soho square at night dominated by the famous, forbidding statue that comes alive to drag Don Juan — known here as DJ — to his destiny.
The other problem besetting Moliere’s play is that Don Juan’s treatment of women becomes not so much implausible as unpalatable. But here, Marber and Ifans have infectious fun creating an attractive dynamo of sexual conquest. Comedy is the key. He is a man who tells us the most frightening word in the dictionary is “wife.” To a roar of laughter, he peaks a speech on his exploits with “I’m the Kofi Annan of copulation!”
His bizarre attractiveness makes complete sense of the position of his wife, the normally incomprehensible Elvira. Why would she want to go back for more when he treats her so appallingly? Because this previously earnest virgin achieved supreme physical pleasure with him: “He has spun me from fear to ferocity.”
Drawing directly, though more scabrously, from Moliere, Marber shows his antihero making love to two women at once in a riotously funny scene in a hospital waiting room. Passing as a doctor, he claims he’s “a specialist” in order to inspect or, rather, massage the breasts of perky young termagant Lottie (Seroca Davis, with a comic whirlwind temper).
Turned on by his money and his debonair boldness — she’s got wind of the fact that he’s loaded in every sense — she whips under a blanket and proceeds to give him oral satisfaction as he’s simultaneously hitting on another woman. With each woman blissfully but dangerously unaware of the other’s presence, his sheer audacity is hugely funny; Ifans’ affectedly calm but increasingly strained voice and purple face as Lottie brings him to climax brings the house down.
As he proved with his last original play, “Howard Katz,” Marber is, line for line, as scintillating a wordsmith as you can find. That’s obvious even in simple observations. One of DJ’s conquests is described as being “nude as a spoon,” which manages to be both funny and chilly.
Marber tempers DJ’s outrageous hymn to himself with self-knowledge. “We live in an ‘age of apology,’ don’t confuse it with authenticity,” DJ argues. There’s honesty to his perpetual womanizing, unlike the lies of a world in which “hypocrisy has become vice and virtue,” with “unsporting sportsmen” and “peace-preaching rulers waging just war.”
The strength of this extraordinarily cohesive production is made manifest in its quietest moment. In what turns out to be the calm before the thematic storm where the statue comes shockingly, and brilliantly, to life, Ifans and Wight gaze up at the stars. Neil Austin’s high-angled light picks their faces out of a cold night sky, and the spell of their sudden wonder is cast across the entire auditorium. That this charged, still moment resonates so powerfully is a tribute to the world conjured by a captivating show.