Kneehigh theatre productions is back bringing it’s latest masterpiece, Don John, to centre stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Inspired by the legendry libertine, Don Giovanni, director Emma Rice has shaped and adapted this fictional character into many of Kneehigh’s visually captivating performance’s. We have the mind-numbingly dull vicars wife Anna, Zerlina the polish cleaner and Elvira, a lovelorn women who we seriously worry for a number of times throughout the play; the plot sees the dangerously appealing womanizer Don John’s sordid ways halted to a permanent stop by three of his victims- instead of the statue, who makes a daunting appearance in the original tale of the infamous man who loved to have his wicked way.
The boisterous play has been reset from the fourteenth century and reborn into 1978, ‘the winter of discontent’. I have to applaud set designer Vikki Mortimer who makes a brilliant choice for the background scenery: stacking four rusty portable cabins- presumably containing the contraptions of a funfair which shadows Don Johns ever moving lifestyle- to fashion the swiftly changing scene arrangements, one for the musicians, on top, Elvira’s room and the set of creates on the right hand side shows Anna’s house, later transformed into Don John’s room and on top, the vicars church -equipped with a piano and plastic chairs- the metal containers are also used as playground climbing frames by Don John. Another aspect of the set I would like to credit would be the black dustbin bags dumped towards the very front of the stage, a symbolic prop discretely telling us of Don John’s treatment to women and an authentic look at the dustbin strike that depressingly loomed over many towns at that period of time. The most stunning prop of all, which is not the tacky neon cross that makes an unwelcome hanging appearance every so often, is in fact the backdrop: a fairground sign spelling out, “Shelly’s Ride”, it later proves to be an in genius idea when used in the play to spell the words, “She” and when at Don John’s end, “Hell”. To downstage left, by the container housing the chorus, was a burning fire reflecting the emotion on stage, not at all effective as most wouldn’t notice the contrast unless someone pacifically pointed it out.
Footlights and side floods create a glaring wash as we watch the going ons in the small bleak town. You can expect an impressive combination of flash lighting and heart pumping sound effects when Kneehigh add in the typical seventies blackouts -creatively represented by pyrotechnic explosions- into the scenarios and don’t be surprised to see the general lighting being cut off altogether- when Anna is raped by Don John; the audience also a sense the blindness and the confused emotions connected with being hidden from the truth like Anna was. A shock of strobe lighting creates the illusion of bullet shots which effectively makes us squirm and jump up in horror and bright lights to accompany the scene with Don John taking pills and getting high. However, the hands down best lighting effect is of the glitter ball that created a dazzling wash of white spots dancing around the theatre.
One of Kneehigh’s traits is live sound throughout and it’s disappointing to see they don’t deliver on catchy enough songs but would rather settle for a group of words sung in tune and set to the rhythm of the band. Some of the songs mocked the seventies music like: ‘Desire’ played in a satirical Blondie style and others like, ‘Viva Liberate’ tried to imitate the punk sex pistols style but most of the time the sound was so off and the singing too loud the vocal talents of the actors and singers turned into an incoherent slur of noise. The more retro instruments used were a harpsichord and lute, both slightly interesting to see them being played. It was always an excited pleasure to hear the great use of sfx, such as: gunshots, a heartbeat when Anna senses the captivating presence of Don John, the amusing touch of popular TV show Grange Hill theme music, bells, news and shipping forecasts on the radio. A very good sound effect was one created by popping balloons, which imitated the sounds of gunshots almost perfectly, in Don John’s nightmare where all the people who’s lives he had effected comes at him with a balloon in hand and he tries to fend them off with his gun but his attempt deems to be futile.
Seventies styled costumes armed with flare jeans and multicoloured tops with striped designs was another feature of the show that took us back to the winter of 1978. Don John was dressed in a woollen jumper, leggings and knee high boots, Zerlina flitted around the stage in scarlet platforms, Anna was dressed in old brown clothes and Elvira, seen in a business like outfit later did a costume change and transformed from her uptight persona and into a loose women in a red dress. The costumes were very appropriate as each character was given some to wear that would reflect them over all, for example: Zerlina’s zany skirt and high platforms mirrors a quirky personality whilst Anna, dressed in uninspiring brown garments two sizes too big, reflected her plain personality. However, I was disappointed to see Don John’s costume change into an ugly dress for the second half of the play.
References to the tedious time of 1978 pop up in dialogue and on the radio news/music, photographs and mementoes. The narrator and lead singer of the band directly address the audience when telling us of Don John’s story. Kneehigh use modern technology to approach the aspect of exactly how many women Don John has been with and to let Elvira realise she needs to move on because she is not at all special to him in anyway. They showed this by hanging a curtain up off of the crate containing Don John’s hotel room and projecting a slideshow of women the main antagonist has left behind, it was effective because it showed how Don John and his less than dashing side kick had the nerve to collect pictures of his victims and treasure them in a proud collection, telling us just how sleazy they are.
The physical movement in this play can only be described as captivating, especially involving the sexual acts between Don John and Zerlina. We see the two share a moment of short lived passionate emotion which gives us an insight as to why exactly women find Don John an irritably delicious temptation, supported by the rhythmatic flow of the band, they successfully symbolise a climax by the festoon and fairground lights flaring, done in a more realistic way would have probably come across as tacky so credit is due there. Another movement piece that I liked was acted out by the dancers who, in the song ‘Wantoness’, write the names of various girls on the foreground flooring of the stage and on crates, this starts off as small actions but then extend to dramatic whole body movements, it, in my opinion, adds the effects of a ghostly presence that follows Don John to ever town but is never noticed by the other characters.
The actors that stood out to me were the ones who played the character of Don John and of Zerlina. Don John managed to communicate a faux suave charm fantastically and injected charisma into the mannerisms of his character. The best moment for Don John was the one involving him and Zerlina as the relationship based purely on heat was conveyed though eye contact and physical movement. The character of Zerlina was not only the most entertaining, setting aside Don John himself, but the only character who brought across a certain energy to the dullest of scenes you would rather not watch. With her amusing accent that ends every sentence with a high inflection of the voice, Zerlina the polish cleaner is by far the strongest female in the entire performance. Her best scene is of her comically multitasking the chore of hovering and dusting whilst having her nose stuck into a book bought for her by nerdy fiancï¿½, Alan. However the performance of drib-drab Anna was pronounced bland and mundane the moment any of the other characters opened their mouths. Lacking any believable emotion, every one of her lines that was said stood for the chance at winning the worst moments in Don John. Although, at the very beginning, the rebellious drinking communion brought a slight smile to my face. Her worst moments though, were in the scene where the three women, Elvira, Zerlina and Anna decide to take their revenge on Don John by uniting and thus becoming stronger women. However, Anna failed to show any change from stale vicars wife to an independent woman and in one of the final scenes- where Anna is shown leaving her husband because the dreary woman was in search of a so-called ‘adventure’- is painfully rubbish to watch mainly due to the same reason that crops up a many a times in the play- Anna’s non existent personality.
Overall, the play was enjoyable and definitely a funny performance to watch. The alluring swagger of Don John was hypnotic throughout and the highlights include everything Zerlina. However, if I was to direct this play I would make the ending tilt towards the more realistic side and not be as symbolic with the props, for example; the present for Elvira with a baby inside wasn’t that clever. Also, I would get rid of the cheesy Barry White number at the end altogether- that kind of last ditch attempt to woo the audience over in the form of a get-the-girls-off-the front-row-and-make-them-dance strategy, I expect from some high school performance.