Finborough Theatre, London
‘Don Juan’ comes back from the Great War, ready to get on with his life as an infamous womaniser but a run in with death, his knife-wielding former mother-in-law to be and an old flame are all wake up calls that leave him questioning his life and identity, and searching for love and vitality in the ruins of Berlin. The production forms part of the Finborough Theatre’s Rediscoveries Season, which has unearthed six overlooked plays from across the globe, including this one, written originally by Ödön von Horváth, in a new version by Duncan Macmillan.
The Finborough’s tiny black box theatre, perched on top of a wine café, was transformed by Ellan Parry’s ingenious set: a simple though versatile structure which enables the narrative to drift effortlessly between the diverse locations with a change of lighting or the drawing of a curtain. Almost as soon as the audience enter they are transported to the gloomy ruins of Germany and Don Juan’s life by the dim, smoky lighting and the sound of bombs. This is the background against which the “absurdly decadent” personalities of Don Juan and his female entourage will play, before his own life begins to crumble - just like the city.
Equally diverse are the characters that cross Don Juan’s path, all beautifully portrayed by an unusually female-heavy cast. Rosie Thomson, who joined the cast late in the process to fill in for another actress, gave a show-stealing performance as one of Don Juan’s past lovers, now a single jobless mum. Thomson embodies perfectly the defiance and strength her character has adopted to deal with life after the war while subtly capturing the tender moments she shares with her daughter and Don Juan, shifting deftly between the two.
That the small playing space didn’t look crowded, even with several crates and six or seven actors on stage at some points, is testament to Andrea Ferran’s intelligent direction. With the clear metaphorical parallels between the German economy and Don Juan’s life, and the often distressing subject matter, it would have been easy for this production to slip into the murky realms of historical, boring and too shocking. Instead, Ferran creates a stunning piece of theatre with glimmers of real life, even amongst the caricatures.
My only criticism is that one corner of the audience (the one where I unknowingly sat myself, as luck would have it), because of the inevitable blocking that happens with a thrust or in-the-round staging, important moments were diminished or missed altogether. For instance, for the duration of Don Juan’s charismatic opening speech I saw only his back, and none of the facial expression – except that of the audience members opposite!
Brilliantly visual and emotional with gentle touches of humour this show is also terrific value, with tickets available for around £10. A cut above pub theatre, this is wine café theatre.