JOYCE MCMILLAN on DON JUAN and OFFSHORE at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, and NOISES OFF at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, for Scotsman Review 26.9.08
Don Juan 3 stars ***
Offshore 2 stars **
Noises Off 4 stars ****
NO, NO STORIES, NEVER AGAIN, said the central monologue of this year’s Heiner Goebbels show at the Edinburgh Festival, I Went To The House But Did Not Enter. And it’s broadly true that serious theatre, in our time, has to deal with the idea that by shaping experience into a story, we almost inevitably make it too neat, and too comforting.
So it’s a thrill to discover that Jeremy Raison’s new version of the Don Juan story – playing at the Citizens’ in a spectacular production by Raison and Maxine Braham – adopts one of the most exciting of strategies for challenging a familiar narrative style, one that has made serious inroads into popular culture in the last decade. He takes the basic story, and collides it with another, set in a different time. So his Don Juan begins and ends the evening as a bullish, overconfident but doomed global player 21st century celebrity culture; but for most of the story, finds himself sucked back through time – in a flurry of cliched but enjoyable lighting and sound effects, from the X-Files via Torchwood – into the period of Moliere or Goldoni, all frock-coats, corsets, rigid class distinctions, and fancy hats.
Now it would be overstating the case to say that Raison and Brahan make a great deal of this idea, although Raison’s thoughtful script might benefit from a quieter and, on the male side, better acted production. Unlike Iain Heggie’s clever, unproduced Don Juan of half a decade ago, Raison’s version makes no attempt to find a modern equivalent for Don Juan’s trampling of sexual taboos; and the effect is often to reduce his story to a relatively harmless romp, despite the evident suffering of the Don’s three principal victims, exquisitely played here by Pauline Knowles, Elspeth Brodie, and the wonderful Neve McIntosh as Donna Anna.
Even more importantly, the production never reaches a conclusion about its real focus of attention. It seems unconvinced by the traditional story of Don Juan as a free-thinking sinner who suffers spiritual retribution; but it also fails to opt firmly for the radical idea, best expressed in Mozart’s opera, that Don Juan is basically a mirror in which we can see reflected the powerful erotic lives of three different, magnificent women.
And yet, even with these limitations, this Don Juan is tremendous fun: interesting and exciting to look at, uncommitted but rich in its exploration of female attitudes to sex, and fascinating in its handling of the figure of Anna’s father, The Commendador, who ranges through the ages as ringmaster, crossing-sweeper, and representative of a vengeful God. Mark Springer’s Don Juan looks confused and lacks depth, Fintan McKeown’s Commendador shambles a bit, and James Anthony Pearson’s gay Octavio reaches John-Inman-like levels of limp-wristedness. But there’s some spectacular time-bending design by Jason Southgate and lighting man Stuart Jenkins, with stylish costume and sound by Liz Krause and Graham Sutherland; and at least this show creates some playful creative space, in which ideas can flourish, and theatrical energy spark like a firecracker.
There’s no such challenging fun to be had, though, upstairs in the Circle Studio, where the mixed-ability company Birds Of Paradise present Offshore, a new play by Alan Wilkins which begins well, evoking the natural beauty and underlying despair of an economically stressed Scottish island community. This is a place where the temptations of alcohol and drugs are never far from the door; so when wealthy strangers Jock and Frida arrive, and start offering large cash sums to buy up ex-hippy Kath’s failing chandlery, people have to make quick decisions about how deeply to inquire into the nature of their business.
The problem with Offshore, though, its that it can’t decide whether it wants to be a serious drama about the corrupting power of drugs money in Scottish coastal communities, or a silly small-screen thriller with a self-undermining twist in the tail. In barely 65 minutes, it fails to collide the two genres in an interesting way, or to save its characters from becoming mere thumbnail sketches of wicked incomers and wily locals. And in the end, it seems like a strange choice for Birds Of Paradise, more reminiscent of Wilkins’s awkward and unconvincing early play The Nest, than of last year’s big, ambitious and thoughtful award-winner, Carthage Must Be Destroyed.
For a truly masterly deconstruction of a tired form of narrative, though, the place to be this week is the King’s Theatre in Glasgow, where Ambassadors are presenting a hilarious touring production of Michael Frayn’s 1982 classic Noises Off. This is the play which begins like a classic English country-house farce – elaborate set full of doors and staircases, housekeeper in a pinny answering the phone – but rapidly descends into magnificently-choreographed chaos, as we realise that this particular farce is a play within a much more shambolic play, about the lives, loves and ferocious jealousies of the acting company who are presenting the ghastly farce, Nothing On.
There are moments when the pace of David Gilmore’s production flags, and when the heart yearns for an even more radical take on a satire which is itself now a quarter of a century old. But in the end, there’s just no denying the skill and brilliance of Frayn’s text, or the inspired work of Gilmore’s acting company, led by Jonathan Coy as the philandering director, and the fabulous Maggie Steed as Dotty, the ageing diva who has money in the show, and who plays the housekeeper, Mrs. Clackett, with a deranged geniality that’s hard to describe, but impossible to resist.
Don Juan at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 11 October; Offshore at the Citizens’ Theatre until tomorrow, and on tour until 1 November; Noises Off at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, until tomorrow, 27 September.