Don Juan at Full Throttle
Words Sophie Dillon – images Aaron Ashley , Jayde Baguley.
Don Juan is a fictional character who has been the subject of operas, poetry, and plays since the 17th century, a great seducer in search of the ideal of a perfect woman who doesn’t exist. It is this futile search that drives his promiscuity and is ultimately what makes him attractive.
Women can see that he’s looking for perfection and they foolishly hope to fulfill this fantasy. However, when it becomes clear that he’s looking for something else they recoil and become vengeful.
Don Juan Comes back from the War was originally written in 1936 by the German playwright Ödön Von Horváth, and is often seen as a proto-feminist version of the Don Juan legend. In this contemporary translation of Horváth by Christopher Hampton, the notorious philanderer, is imagined as the last man standing – a survivor of the trenches now living in a world composed of women.
Full Throttle’s production, directed by Todd Barty, radiated Horvath’s original darkly comical style and drew fine performances from an ensemble of ten women who played 28 diverse roles.
Performed at the Old Courthouse Theatre, it was a rich two hours of terse scenes that flowed quickly if not smoothly, jumping disjointedly from one situation to another due to the abstract nature of the play. The disillusionment and irony in the production reflected Horvath’s favourite theme, the tragedy of life and the treacherous sentimentality under which people can hide their true intentions.
The story was set in a post WWI Berlin with Don Juan, played by Matt Soutar, a great transgressor who having once defied society’s ideals and morality is suddenly looking for them again in a world where they have evaporated.
But the women are different now, they are more demanding and there is something quite sinister as their rejection becomes bitter and vengeful. This comes through strongly when the women are vehement regarding Don Juan that ‘he should be exterminated’ and that ‘there’s no room in the world for him.’
The play explores the ensuing damage of a cycle of retribution and the inability to let go: whether it is a real or imagined hurt that has been received. This comes across in the depiction of the characters inability to face reality and their own underlying flaws, accomplished through the use of melodramatic language that falls away leaving only anger and hurt in its stead.
The cast of female actors play their parts well, of hard-bitten women who believe romantic ideals are for men, sinister little girls in white who symbolically attack snowmen, predatory ladies who lunch and scheme, and dominating all the rancorous grandmother of Don Juan’s dead lover.
As well as filling the role of director Barty also played the part of the vengeful grandmother with an overwhelming and humorous stage presence that drew laughs from the crowd every time he appeared on stage in pumps and tightly wrapped black turban.
There is a wry humour that penetrates all through this exploration of human folly and ensuing tragedy, and due to the scripts inclusion of contentious issues still prevalent in modern culture the comedy and pathos intended for certain scenes was sometimes, challenging and uncomfortable.
The German Weimar style, musical accompaniment also warrants mentioning, it is especially amusing in a scene where two prostitutes, played by Michelle Rigby and Danaella Wivell, enter singing about whiskey and attempt to entice a shy and reticent Don Juan.
Head makeup artist Jane Ryder, who also plays one of the women, effectively portrayed Don Juan’s impact on the women with painted cracks applied across the female characters faces effectively symbolising how he ‘broke’ them, and signifying their deteriorating mental states as the play unfolds.
The scenic design, created by Jeanette Hutchinson, with the set’s distorted doors and windows referenced German expressionist art of the era and transported the audience into a dark and twisted, post war world. The costuming complemented and added some contemporary realism to the play, and was also true to the style of Berlin’s Weimar cabaret era during the time the play was written.
From all of these flawed characters that are a little bit larger than life and a little bit distorted something of the real world emerges and you are left thinking about your own experiences and those of the people around you. Overall a night well spent and a production that kept you thinking long after leaving the theatre.
“The best satire is a kind of fun house mirror and once you see your own tendencies exaggerated and distorted in that mirror you can never easily walk away again and make those same mistakes or think that way without catching yourself … I hope that the performance has that kind of effect” Director Todd Barty.
Matt Souter as ‘Don Juan’ – photograph Jayde Baguley 2015