When Molière’s Dom Juan first said that hypocrisy is a fashionable vice, I can’t imagine he was meditating on future iterations of the eponymous play such as the production at The Vaults Theatre.
all-too-amateur for a paying audience
That three-hundred and fifty-seven years later, a staged performance of Dom Juan - which so conspicuously draws on the unaccountability of powerful men, and the politics surrounding the inequality of the sexes - could so ostracise the women from the action of the play, and with such prominence - is glaringly unavoidable. Made even more lamentable by the fact Anastasia Revi (the director) considers her piece to follow ‘the end of a male-gazing patriarchy…’ Nonsense! How much more of the male gaze could have been subtended when one actress was given no text at all, but entirely decorative status? Billed as the ‘Illusion of Love’, Signe Preston ambled down the aisle from time to time, mute, adorned in an array of - what I can assume - were intended unironically as sexy or libertin outfits, but instead looked like Halloween-costume angel/devil hand-me-downs. The scorned newly-wed Donna Elvira, (Fanny Dulin) looked two times too old to play the role. Elvira’s tirades of admonishment of Dom Juan’s actions should bring a youthful tone of defiance and dignity, and echo the reprehensive moral clout of Jodi Kantor & Meghan Twohey’s She Said on Weinstein & #MeToo. Dulin performed on one-note, in a girlish tone; these sections then seemed trivial, less important than the male-only sequences, and I think were cut in translation.
One must remember that at the time of its première, Molière’s Dom Juan was heralded as controversial, perhaps even an invective on the French court. Its writer was criticised for dicing with and against the power structures of patriarchy, which subtended royal circles, the church & French households alike. His ingénue roles have thus long been a complex gift for young actresses to play with - and remain parts of great humour, and (sadly) politically relevant in today’s society. Yet, in this Vaults’ production, the actresses were positioned always to the sides of the stage and were offered little in the way of comic action, while the men rarely erred from the middle. Other female action was given to the male actors dressed as women, a touch that would usually please this reviewer,, but incomprehensibly squeaky voices felt like an infantile directorial choice - not to mention how this classic offers the men plenty to do already…
I spent most of the evening grimacing as the ever-continual dirge of the actors shouting over the music quagmired the play in incomprehensibility. I’m unsure as to what the director thought this music served? What a shame, when the original prose offers us such an eloquent and ever-cutting assessment of the époque, words that carry such an intriguing valency in our own times. As a result of the music, the quality of listening between the actors was also woeful, and thus the world on stage became very disengaging for the audience. It is said of the double act that subtends the narrative that Dom Juan carries the wit (the words), and Sgnarelle, the folly of the piece (the physical comedy). However, Sganarelle (David Furlong) was far more interested in entertaining the audience directly, and did not play status to Dom Juan (Dimitri Jeannest); and so the title character never felt dangerous or authoritative enough to make the narrative work.
When the Pierrot figure (Nathan Ricard) arrived on the gondola in a mask, I was, for a moment, excited to see some of the forms contemporaneous to the writing of the original. However, this was not to be… The odd mistake, an audience enjoys; it keeps the theatre a live art. But consistent clumsiness, prop-malfunctions, and bumping into the furniture multiple times in this sequence was all-too-amateur for a paying audience. I hasten to add, this was most probably not aided by the action being pulled backstage by a cluttered, impractical, and ugly set-design. Even on a political level, this section fell foul of a recalcitrance to lazy tropes, namely a Northern accent used as a substitute for a simpleton. Unsurprisingly, I did not care to see the original-language production, but question whether they would have used a ‘South of France’ accent to imply the same here.
One thing you could not fault the production for was its energy; the actors never relented. But at times, whooping and jumping made adept actors look as if someone had allowed them their first go on the stage. It was chaotic, and it seemed as if they had run out of ideas. When the self-edifying Je Ne Regrette Rien false ending came in - my hope for it finishing was all too sweetly soured by having to endure a further two acts. At that moment, j’ai tout regretté…
If this production were reprised, the Byronic sequences of Dom Juan as a fop meditating in his valet’s lap offer a potentially interesting development of class-gender play in the piece, and echo historical interpretations of the figure. Indeed, the latent bisexuality and selective femininity of the figure is something which the Patrick Marber adaptation touched on so adeptly in David Tennant’s incarnation. But even if the Commedia dell’arte ideas were promising, a gender-crossing ensemble positive, and a bilingual language-switching cast full of beans, ultimately - on every level - this production was a veritable massacre of a classic. Marketing itself on a connected Europeanism, but reaching no further than hackneyed clichés, it was so poorly constructed that I laughed throughout, and for all the wrong reasons.