Don John – December 2008

Experience: 2/10

By Emma Rice and Anna Maria Murphy

Directed by Emma Rice

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Wednesday 17th December 2008

We went to a pre-show talk with the director, where Emma Rice gave us some interesting information about Kneehigh’s development process for this piece, along with her ideas of what it was about. I’ve discovered that most of it is covered in the program notes and in the video interview on the RSC website, so I won’t go into too much detail here. She was very alert, and really listened to the questions, which corroborated the information that she has to be aware of everything that goes on in rehearsal in order to pick up every good idea that the cast come up with (usually in the tea breaks). While she’s fully open to these ideas, she’s also very clear about which ones will fit into her vision of the piece; “strong but wrong” is apparently a common assessment of many of the actors’ suggestions.

She covered the choice of 1978 pretty thoroughly – a time of upheaval and major changes in both society and people – and was very emphatic that the play wasn’t about sex. Sex was just the currency that Don John uses. She had come to terms with doing this story of an unpleasant character who shags women like it was breathing – a necessity rather than an indulgence – by choosing to reclaim the women’s stories within it. She feels the women are actually very strong, not just passive victims of a philanderer, even though it’s a man (or the ghost of one) who exacts revenge on DJ. She’d done a project with single mums in Cornwall, and their stories had informed the whole rehearsal process. The interest for Emma was in exploring what those women wanted from DJ which allowed him to get what he wanted (not sex, apparently). She saw DJ as someone who could tune in very quickly to each woman’s needs and who used that ability to fulfill the women’s desires. So if I’ve understood her correctly, she doesn’t see his interactions with women as being about him. She did think we would be surprised by the way that Don John was taken down to hell in this version.

The containers were discussed as well. While we were waiting for the talk to start we could see some preparations being made on the stage, so we were aware that the containers opened up to reveal the contents, though not how that would fit in with the performance. We would find out very soon.

The performance itself was not one of Kneehigh’s better efforts. It resembled a workshop performance of some ideas they were still kicking around, and in my view it needs a lot more work. There were some good parts, almost all in the first half, but overall it was unengaging and at times downright tedious. The expectations set up by the pre-show talk proved to be mostly unfounded, and while it’s unlikely we would have enjoyed this much anyway, they probably got in the way of us enjoying it more than we did.

The set got in the way a lot, too. Whereas the Cymbeline set was a cornucopia of delights, a metal cage that opened and unfurled easily and quickly to create many locations, this one was cluttered and clunky. Imagine an old fairground, down by some docks, which was being used to store excess shipping containers, and you’re pretty much there. There were four containers on two levels, with fairground and stage arches intertwined amongst them. These arches would light up in the usual assortment of pretty patterns, and the one at the back also spelled out “Shelley’s Ride”. The “he” was lit at one point, also the “she” and “ride”, so we’d already sussed that “hell” would light up at the appropriate time (it did). One of the containers, the one to the left at ground level, was rolled forward onto the stage a number of times, and locked in place with a small dome-shaped thing that rose up from the floor. There were four spare women who usually manhandled the container, and who then let down the sides so we could see what was going on inside; at least we could have if the upright in the corner hadn’t been in our way, more so for Steve than me. The room inside the container changed from time to time – it was the sick room of Anna’s dying father, the hotel(?) room that Selina cleans and which Don John passes through occasionally, and also the chapel of rest where Anna’s father was laid out after Don John shot him.

When the container was off the stage (I think the term is ‘resting’), anything could happen. There was a church setting, with lots of plastic bucket seats laid out in rows, an organ at the front, and a large neon cross descending from above. There was a disco, with no particular furnishings that I can remember, although the band was over in the right hand lower container. There were also some scenes where a large wedding cake (five tiers) sat on a table in the middle of the stage, just begging to be knocked over – Don John duly obliged. There were lots of bin bags lying around (remember the dustmen’s strike?) and more were added during the performance. There were poles roughly in the corners of the stage with lights strung between them. At the start the table was in the back corner on the right with a radio on it, and we were being entertained by Radio 1 and some hits from the time. The radio was used a lot through the play with additional live music – which was usually good though some of it went on too long – and extracts from Don Giovanni, with which I’m not familiar so they didn’t add any extra resonance for me. All in all, it was the usual Kneehigh eclectic mix, just waiting to be brought to life by an entertaining story, well told.

And that’s where things started to go pear-shaped. There was a promising start, with a young chap coming on riding a bicycle, and then Don John and a very scantily clad young lady snuck on stage to lie under a blanket. We don’t get to see the sex at this point, just the aftermath, as DJ arose and zipped up his trousers while Nobby, his faithful servant, took a Polaroid of the latest conquest. From there we saw DJ prowl round the stage and containers, climbing and jumping where necessary, trying to eke out his tedious existence by looking for the next woman to shag and downing loads of booze in the process (drugs as well, presumably). Despite Emma’s assertions about him during the pre-show, we don’t get to see him seducing women by tuning in to their wants and needs; instead we saw him take advantage of a power cut to effectively rape a woman who thought her husband had finally realised that she needed some physical expression of his love. We also saw him sort of seduce the cleaner, who looked like she was game for anything anyway, and be turned down by another woman who closed her shutters on him. None of this could be remotely described as “reclaiming the women’s stories”; if anything, she’d made the whole thing much sleazier while removing the moral dimension to balance the depravity.

[I’m now finishing off these notes from my rough jottings at the time, so there will be gaps. 23/1/2014] The part near the end when DJ was taken down to hell proved to be anything but a surprise. As already mentioned, the ‘hell’ part of the larger sign lit up and DJ took an overdose(?) – I wasn’t entirely clear what had happened. I realised at this point that Emma had made a fundamental mistake – she expected everyone in the audience to know the Don Giovanni story as well as she did. If we didn’t know how that story ended, how could we be surprised by this staging? Personally, I thought a better ending would be for Don John to have made himself physically damaged with drink and drugs and be stuck in a hospital bed, surrounded by attractive nurses and unable to move. That really would be hell for that character. I have a brief note that the baby was given to Elvira at the end, which I found a bit weird, and again, if you don’t know the story…. (Perhaps it will make more sense when I find the program.)

We were certainly disappointed that they hadn’t reached a better standard with this production, and reckoned it was under-prepared rather than under-rehearsed. Mike Shepherd, a perfectly good actor and Kneehigh joint artistic director, looked uncomfortable in his role as Nobby; if that was the only thing we’d seen him do we wouldn’t have rated him very highly at his profession. We both saw echoes of Propeller’s unpleasant version of The Taming Of The Shrew, and I felt that this production (Don John) didn’t blend the emotional aspects and the humour at all well; jokes, usually by the men, kept undercutting the women’s predicaments. That may be a reasonably realistic touch, but it made the characters more distant, so that I couldn’t connect with the women or care about them in any way. In fact, I found the whole performance so unenjoyable that I couldn’t have cared less about the whole thing. When it finally came to an end there was more agony; after taking their bows – some people liked it, to be fair – the music started up and the cast invited members of the audience on to the stage to have a dance with them. Aaarrgghh! I wanted to leave, but didn’t want to squeeze along the row past people who were evidently keen to stay to the bitter end. I’ve rarely been so glad to get out in the fresh air after a show!

© 2008 & © 2014 Sheila Evans at

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