I am a big fan of Exchange Theatre. I applaud their mission to bring Molière to these Shakespeare-sodden shores in multi-lingual and highly digestible form. I enjoy their inventiveness, ambition, brilliant taste in music and the irrepressible vigour of their shows.
Dom Juan is not their best work, nor indeed Molière’s. Although lively and atmospheric, this production is also a bit chaotic. In Molière’s version of the story, Dom Juan is a rake who compromises and then abandons women; who cuckolds other men; who has no faith himself but torments the faithful and less fortunate; who cheats and lies and praises hypocrisy as the only way to seal the world’s lips about his crimes. The valet, Sganarelle, laments his master’s corruption, but is himself craven and greedy. In Exchange Theatre’s interpretation, which starts off jaunty and doesn’t really evolve tonally, the darkness of this morality tale never really comes through.
This is a shame, because The Vaults are a perfect setting for darkness, their seediness in keeping with the rumpled bedsheets and anonymous ladies of Dom Juan’s brocaded boudoir, and their air of decay a reminder of the state of our anti-hero’s soul. The aisle staircase is treated as an extension of the stage and used to draw the audience into the action; we are showered with love letters, brushed by the wings of spectres and invited to share the snuff that Sganarelle claims is a man’s route to virtue and honesty.
This is a five act play and the set changes with each act. In a 90 minute show this results in the cast spending a lot of time moving furniture about and finessing small details that are not always necessary to create the desired effect. In fact, there is very little stillness at all. The ensemble of six plays a cast of 14 or more, with the help of a large array of masks. This means that, whilst Dom Juan and Sganarelle are on stage most of the time, the other performers are always entering and exiting, with quick changes in between and very little opportunity for characterisation.
Dimitri Jeannest’s Dom Juan is a bit of a dandy; more Blackadder’s Prince George than Vicomte de Valmont. He is louche and slightly ridiculous, and if there is no sense of the black hole where his empathy ought to be, there is certainly the humour and charm of the sociopath. David Furlong is the charismatic heart of the show, joking with the audience, singing, relishing the incoherence of his character’s arguments, and generally being naturally comedic, even if there could be a little more shade in his Sganarelle.
What the show lacks in subtlety and polish it makes up for in entertainment value. The action is driven along at a brisk pace, with a magnificent soundtrack. There is clowning, there are dumb shows and in places they send up their own limitations, as the actor playing Pierrot slips into something more feminine onstage, to transform into Mathurine. The use of masks helps to create a pleasing atmosphere of intrigue and duplicity. It was wonderful to see expat French children in the audience, being immersed in Francophone culture. I hope that at the English language shows there are English kids being introduced to the joys of Molière and I hope that, in the age of Partygate, Dom Juan’s assertion that ‘hypocrisy is a fashionable vice, and all fashionable vices pass for virtues” doesn’t ring too horribly true to them.
Written by: Molière
Directed by: Anastasia Revi
Produced by: Theatre Lab Company and Exchange Theatre
Dom Juan plays at The Vaults until 29 May. Performances alternate between French and English. Check website here for further details and which nights are in Engish or French