as promised.... my review:
Armed with a pen, paper, an open mind and a fairly decent seat in the Warwick Art Centre, I was more than pleasantly surprised to bear witness to nothing less than a masterpiece performed by Knee High Theatre Company. Knee High’s latest outing, “Don John”, takes strong influences from Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” and holds true to the original structure of two acts following the life the womanizing, charismatic and yet oddly irresistible protagonist, Don John. Using visually inventive motifs, spectacular sets and a live band that cannot be described as anything less than fantastic, Knee High have brought Mozart’s former masterpiece kicking and screaming into the modern day (although setting the show in the late 1970’s).
Now to set the scene: If you are wondering why director, Emma Rice, has chosen the “battered Britain” of 1978 as a setting it is rather simple yet brilliant. The decision to set their bleak update of the Don Juan story in the “winter of discontent” (or the winter of 1978 for those of us not around to witness it first hand) is a direct insinuation of our own modern day society with the UK going through a recession and everyday seeming to turn into the worst day “since records began”.
Now enough of setting the scene it’s time for the action and plot: The stage consists of metal containers you would see down the docks of a shipping yard, which later turn out to be the rooms in which the action of the piece is played out, the lights go down and the audience are greeted with a congregation of workers who are on strike gathered around a barrel with flames flickering in the dim lighting that fills the stage. A radio, held by one of the workers comes to life and is fiddled with until Jim Callaghan’s voice comes over the radio saying he won’t be calling an election until the spring and promising “that we’ll see this through together”. The inhabitants of a small English town will certainly be seeing the next few hours through together as Don John descends upon them to wreak his own unique style of havoc by playing fast and loose with an elegant women who adores him even though Don John does not return the love nor the respect she gives him, a vicars wife who is a secret alcoholic and mistakes Don John’s sexual advances of those of her less than sexually motivated husband and of course Zerlina the polish cleaner who despite being engaged to a nice chap who only wants the best for her, cannot resist Don John’s strange attraction or his charm.
Knee High’s adaptation of Mozart’s classic opera mixes a wide variety of styles and genre’s together. Flitting between comedy, which is probably used to stop us slitting our wrists from the tragedy it would undoubtedly be if we were not saved from time to time by some comedy gems such as the vicar’s constant attempts to be “hip” by singing popular songs from the decade such as songs from the film Greece and mimicking the dancing from Saturday Night Fever. Which is in complete contrast to the erotic sex scenes (which by the way were not as graphic as everyone made them out to be) where Don John works his magic on the unsuspecting female population of the stage whilst using fantastic acrobatic skills on the part of Zerlina the cleaner, and finally the darker side of the piece by constantly reminding us of the dark political issues such as drug and alcohol abuse, strikes, and unemployment which was abundant in the late 1970’s and could become just as abundant in the present day.
One of the highlights of the piece was the superb use of the live band on stage. Whenever the metal container housing the band and their instruments was opened my heart leapt in anticipation to see what the band would come out with next. Mixing recorded classical music by Mozart from the original Don Giovanni story with fantastic live reggae, DUB, punk and a bit of 70’s funk into the mix not only gave the piece an exciting edge and soundtrack but also helped put things into context (did anyone see Don John as some sort of punk figurehead “sticking it to the man” as they say or was it just me?) by using popular music of the period, accompanied with dancing from the supporting players, but yet not forgetting where the piece came from and what the story is based on with references to Mozart’s original opera.
So in conclusion a good night out but is it, as Emma Rica suggests, “appropriate for all”? Maybe this Knee-High performance is not for the younger viewers or those who would rather not see vivid sex scenes on stage, but for those of us old enough to appreciate it and not be offended by the content. But what of Don John? What have we the audience learnt from his antics? Is Don John the villain he appears to be? Or is he an anti-hero embodying freedom and individualism, which over the coming years would almost be destroyed by Thatcherism. This is for each individual audience member to decide for themselves as of course everyone will take away a different part of Don John’s story for better or worse.