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The Theatreguide.London Review

Don John
Battersea Arts Centre      Spring 2009

Before this new show from Cornwall's Kneehigh Theatre I had seen five of their previous shows, and four of them were transcendently exciting experiences.

That's a high percentage - I'm not sure the RSC or National could match it - but it leads to very high expectations. Don John rises at its best to OK - but, fairly or not, we expect a lot more than OK from Kneehigh.

Don John (written by Anna Maria Murphy, adapted and directed by Emma Rice) is, of course, the Don Juan/Don Giovanni story, fairly closely following the Mozart opera, though set in 1978 Britain.

John is a predatory stud, Elvira an obsessed businesswoman, Anna a sex-starved vicar's wife, Zerlina a Polish chambermaid, and so on.

The first disappointment is that the new setting doesn't accomplish much. Though there are half-hearted token references to 1978, mainly in snippets of radio news and pop music, the only addition is a generally undistinguished rock music score by Stu Barker and a crew of female stagehands who double as go-go girls for a couple of numbers.

The writing ranges from the banal - John actually says ' The night is young. Let's crash in flames. We might be dead tomorrow.' - to the self-consciously poetic - writer Murphy's actual credit is 'Words and Poems by.'

Kneehigh's strengths have always lain more in evocative theatrical effects than in actual acting, and too many in the cast speak too many of their lines as if they were schoolchildren reciting memorised poems.

Gisli Orn Gardarsson brings nothing to the role of John, but Nina Dogg Filippusdottir and Amy Marston are appropriately pathetic as Anna and Elvira (and Marston sings her one big torch song well).

Mike Shepherd catches hints of the Leporello figure's moral doubts, and Patrycja Kujawska is strong and sexy as Zerlina.

But it is in the area of production that the biggest disappointments come. Anyone who has seen Kneehigh's Tristan & Yseult, Cymbeline or Brief Encounter waits eagerly for stage pictures or theatrical metaphors that will bring the text alive in fresh and exciting ways - and waits in vain.

The most inventive thing in the staging is building the set out of cargo containers for the actors to appear in, on and around, and choreographing some dance numbers for the principals and go-go stagehands that wouldn't be too out-of-place in a West End musical like Grease or Dirty Dancing - and neither really has anything to do with this show, and therefore they seem arbitrarily tacked on.

Hanging over the stage is a neon sign for someplace called Shelley's, and I dread to think how much of the budget it took just to allow HE and SHE to light up as certain characters enter, leaving you to wait without much of a thrill for the inevitable HELL.

Only once, in a brief scene that turns some books into stepping stones, does director Rice invoke a symbol planted earlier in the show to moving and evocative effect.

And it is certainly a big mistake to punctuate the action with several brief snippets of Mozart, which instantly put not only the new music but most of the rest of the show to shame.

I shall return to Kneehigh eagerly next time, because even four-out-of-six is a remarkable record. But Don John is unimpressive by any standards, and a real disappointment by Kneehigh's.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Don John - Kneehigh at Battersea Arts Centre 2009


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