Theatre at Spoleto Festival USA 2009 – Kneehigh Theatre’s Don John

Theatre at Spoleto Festival USA 2009 –  Kneehigh Theatre’s Don John featured image

reviewed by Paula Citron

Don John
Kneehigh Theatre
Spoleto Festival USA 2009
Directed and adapted by Emma Rice
Words and poems by Anna Maria Murphy
Composer and musical director Stu Barker
Starring Gisli Orn Gardarsson, Mike Shepherd, Nina Dogg Filippusdottir, Craig Johnson, Amy Marston, Patrycja Kujawska, Carl Grose and Dave Mynne
Memminger Auditorium
Charleston, South Carolina


Kneehigh Theatre under artistic director Emma Rice may be tucked away in Cornwall, but the British company has a large footprint. After the stunning success of Tristan & Yseult a couple of years ago, the Spoleto Festival has brought the company back to perform Don John. The best way to describe Kneehigh’s collective and collaborative approach would be as a total package. They produce their own original scripts and music, as well as the inventive sets, props and costumes to support their far reaching vision. They also have a cross-cultural cast from various European countries.

Don John is Rice’s updated version of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. What is so remarkable is that every incident in the opera finds a home in Rice’s adaptation that also includes the original eight member cast. In fact, for each duet, trio, quartet etc. of Mozart, Rice has included a scene with the identical number of characters.

An Icelandic matinee idol called Gisli Orn Gardarsson is the sexiest Don John in history – tall, dark and handsome, and then some, with rock star charisma. Leporello is a Cockney sidekick/photographer called Nobby (Mike Shepherd) whom Don John keeps in his thrall through homosexual favours. Donna Anna (Nina Dogg Filippusdottir) and the Commendatore have been transformed into Anna, a drab, repressed, frustrated housewife with an ailing father on intravenous and in a wheelchair (Dave Mynne). Her husband Derek (Craig Johnson) mirrors Don Ottavio’s weaknesses by being an ineffectual vicar. Donna Elvira who keeps her name (Amy Marston) is a duped and pregnant doormat who arrives with her wedding dress. Zerlina and Masetto are now a Polish immigrant cleaner called Zerlina, and a foxy lady to boot (Patrycja Kujawska), and her long-suffering mechanic boyfriend Alan (Carl Grose). Punctuating the action are Stu Barker’s rock-influenced, satiric songs that cover the waterfront from upbeat to soulful, plus Derek’s expository sermons preached to a pitifully small congregation.

There is a seedy carnival atmosphere about Vicki Mortimer’s complex set, a series of cargo containers placed on various levels, the interiors of which change for individual scenes. One container permanently houses Derek’s church and another, the live band. The latter are dressed in coveralls to represent the carnie/sideshow workers. The roadies who move the containers around for set changes are four winsome young women of Csape Dance Company who also function as other characters as necessary. Collectively they look like refugees from a high school yearbook. Mortimer’s costumes are a brilliant recreation, character specific, of both the bleak and the glitzy of the 1970s.

And so everything is in place for the sad story to play out. Anna, who husband is impotent, suffers from guilt because she welcomes John’s sexual advances. The free-spirited Zerlina has no such qualms, while the clinging, pathetic Elvira is at his beck and call. Anna’s father, a former army commander, is shot with his own gun by John during a home invasion. Set pieces from the opera such as Leporello’s list of John’s conquests as told to the despairing Elvira, and John’s serenade to Elvira’s maid are also there. Anna is a secret drinker while Elvira goes on all-out binges and dreams of killing John. Zerlina watches Dallas on television as she cleans. John meets his end in a hallucinatory drug overdose. Anna separates from a desolate Derek to find herself, Elvira has her baby, and Zerlina and Alan make up, for better or worse. The final septet of the opera, where the remaining characters lecture the audience about morality, is now transformed into a party, as the characters, minus John, ask members of the audience to dance.

As a director, Rice demands naturalism from her actors. They are who they are. There is no artifice in characterization, just real people going through anxious times which makes for a low key rather than a melodramatic sensibility. The depth and richness here is how potent a slice of life she is able to create. Don John is complicated and engrossing theatre that juggles so many themes in the air that it makes for a total theatre experience. It consumes the watcher.

Spoleto Festival USA 2009 continues in Charleston, South Carolina until Jun. 7.

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