A gender-swap production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Leo waits outside as Don, her boss, is inside ravishing Petra’s son, Alan. Don suddenly runs from the house with Petra following him. She challenges Don to a duel which ends in her death. After Don and Leo flee, Alan and his fiancée Olivia swear vengeance on her killer.
Don and Leo overhear the sobs of a dumped man. Don approaches, planning to seduce him until he recognizes him as Eddie, a man he recently seduced and abandoned. Don orders Leo to distract him while he escapes. Leo tells Eddie that he is merely one of Don’s thousands of conquests.
Zac and Marina appear, celebrating their impending wedding. Don, lusting after Zac , charges Leo to distract Marina so that he may be alone with Zac. Don has nearly conquered Zac when Eddie interrupts. Alan and Olivia arrive and ask for Don's help in finding Alan’s mothers’ mysterious murderer. Eddie's denunciations of Don arouse their suspicions, but he assures them that Alan is mad. After Don departs, Alan tells Olivia that he recognized Don's voice as that of her mother’s murderer.
Marina chastises Zac for fraternizing with Don, but he convinces her to forgive him. Don invites the couple, along with three clubbers, to a nightclub.
During the dancing, Zac's screams interrupt the dancing revelers, and Don falsely accuses Marina of attacking him. Alan, Olivia and Eddie reveal their identities and confront Don, who manages to escape.
Leo threatens to leave Don's service, but Don convinces her to stay. After Don dupes Marina and makes his escape, Zac comforts his fiancée. Olivia reaffirms her intention to avenge Alan, and Eddie, left alone, laments his betrayal by Don.
Petra’s ghost appears to Don and Leo. Don orders Leo to invite Petra to dinner. Leo, thinking that Don is hallucinating after taking too much cocaine, laughingly agrees.
Don feasts, waited upon by Leo and entertained by a band. Eddie bursts in, urging Don to mend his ways, but he scorns Eddie’s entreaties. The ghost of Petra arrives for dinner, demanding that Don atone for his sins, but he defiantly refuses. Petra drags Don to an old people’s home.
Don (Don Giovanni) - Duncan Rock
Leo (Leporello) - Zoë Bonner
Eddie (Donna Elvira) - Mark Cunningham
Alan (Donna Anna) - Patrick Ashcroft
Petra (Don Pedro) - Tamsin Dalley
Olivia (Don Ottavio) - Stephanie Edwards
Marina (Masetto) - Helen Winter
Zac (Zerlina) – Mark Dugdale
Club Hunk - Damola Onadeko
Gogo dancer/Margaret Thatcher- Samantha Hull
Music by W. A. Mozart, arranged by Tom Albans
Directed by Dominic Gray
Musical Direction by Colin Pettet
Translation by Ranjit Bolt
(Disclaimer: complimentary tickets were given to this production in return for a review (although of course nothing as sordid a bargain as this was actually mentioned). I was going to make some smart allusion to selling one’s soul to the Devil in return for free tickets, until I remembered that I hadn’t been to see Faust but Don Giovanni. Damn. I hate wasting a good allusion)
Ah, Heaven. A dimly lit, laser slashed hell hole, filled to the brim with pounding music, strobe lighting and sweaty, muscular, gyrating bodies. At least that’s how I remember my one and only visit back in my mis-spent youth. These days, a cup of hot chocolate and a coconut macaroon after a morning on the allotment is how I get my thrills. So it was bizarre to be invited back as the guest of RC Theatre Productions (ooooh, matron!) to review this new, gay retelling of Don Giovanni. The floor was just as sticky as it was back in the 1980s. It was still as dark as I remembered, leading to some major mistakes with the free nibbles. Well, if there’s no decent lighting, how is one supposed to tell the vegetarian free nibbles from the non-vegetarian free nibbles? Thinking it would be rude to lower my face to the plate to the point where my nose was touching the nibbles in order to be able to see them properly, I adopted a policy of “grab, nibble delicately, spit into napkin, dump whole lot into dustbin and repeat until vegetarian free nibble is identified”. I finally found a cheese one, after having ingested nearly as much meat as at my last visit……no sniggering at the back please. This is a serious review!
Having sated on free cheese nibble ( I only found the one), I headed to the bar where free complimentary cocktails were being dished out in plastic glasses. They glowed noxious pink in the desperately poor lighting and I cautiously enquired into their ingredients. I heard the words “grenadine” and “vodka” before the barman’s voice was drowned out in the rising tide of shrieks and airkissing as the place filled up with the achingly cool. His lips kept moving but I heard nothing else – but I had one anyway. Ooooh, little straw so you don’t smudge your lippy. Terribly smart. Shame that it tasted like warm Irn-Bru. Do we know anyone here? Are there Windsors, Rainiers, Grimaldis, Kashoggis? Colleen Rooney? No? Shame. Never mind, there’s Kenny Lynch, he’ll do. Hello darling mwah mwah mwah. St. Moritz, Monte Carlo, Brick Lane darling. Suddenly a hot chocolate and a coconut macaroon are starting to sound very appealing.
A leaf through the programme (very brief because “the programme” consists of a single A3 bit of glossy paper folded in half) reveals that we are attending a performance of “Don Giovanni – The Opera”. Sorry, but when you need to tell people that they are here to see an opera by announcing said fact in the programme, there’s trouble brewing. Mind you, from the vacuous twittering filling the air around me, most of the guest list wouldn’t know opera if it came and sat on their face. Unless that nice Kathryn Jenkins was singing it of course (this is extremely heavy sarcasm which I thought I would point out in case you thought I actually liked Kathryn Jenkins. Some people do, I gather). There are pretty photos of all the cast – but no biographies. Part of the fun from reading theatre biogs is finding out what people have done and where you might have seen them before. But no biogs. Well, that will piss off the legitimate opera critics here – there is bound to be at least one because one of the sponsors is Opera Now magazine. Another of the sponsors is The Hoist, so perhaps the Opera Now critic will be combining his trip here this evening with being forced in a leather harness, tied to the wall and flogged until….well, until the floor is even stickier than it is already. For some reason, there’s a list of “musical numbers” – like you would perhaps find in the programme for Singin in the Rain, and although the performances are being sung in English, the title of each “number” is given in its original Italian, along with details of the “scene” For instance:
Garden in Mayfair:
Non sperar (Alan)
Lasciala, Indegno (Don, Petra, Leo)
Wimpy Bar, Picadilly:
Giovinette che fate (Zac, Marina, Don, Leo)
Ho Capito (Marina)
Presumably this is to enable the majority of my fellow guests to go home thinking “I liked that song they sung in the Wimpy Bar bit” and, having been given the name of the aria in Italian, can now look it up on the iTunes site, download it and think themselves sophisticated.
Hang on a minute – Wimpy Bar? Don Giovanni? Oh, I forgot to tell you. Not only is this a gender swapping production, its also set in 1980s London, or, according to the programme “the heady heyday of the Eighties [sic] club scene” – which in this case appears to mean a poster for Phantom of the Opera and assorted 80s posters as a backdrop. What I can’t work out is, in a nightclub, a place where artifice reigns supreme, why the singers are unmiked and the director has decided to go for a realistic operatic sound (there’s a 10 piece orchestra, for chrissakes). This makes no sense. If you’re performing opera in a nightclub, and setting it in 80s London, mike your singers. It will, at least, enable the less vocally talented ones (to put it kindly) to be heard above the hubbub coming from the assembled throng and the racket made by the bar staff. Particularly when the demands of “promenade staging” (for which read one main stage, a balcony and a couple of small stage areas crammed up against each wall) render your singers invisible some of the time and practically inaudible for the rest of it. And why have a proper orchestra? Record the entire thing using synthesisers and play it over the PA system. Its OPERA, for pete’s sake, the most artificial art form known to man. No point trying to make it sound natural. Go for it. Make it more artificial than it already is – if nothing else it will add an extra layer of irony.
The “promenade staging” goes rather to pot because the place is heaving, meaning that wherever you stand, you will end up missing something, visually or aurally– usually the funniest bits, if last night is anything to go by. This makes the question of why no mikes even more pertinent – from the bits I do manage to hear, the new translation is quite funny. But a lot of it just fades into nothingness as soon as performers turn their back. Some of them can’t be heard when they are facing you anyway. The pace slows awfully in the second act and the denouement is obvious from the outset – Petra’s ghost is going to enter through the Phantom of the Opera poster ho ho ho how wittily ironic. Not. Dragging the Don to an old people’s home is simply daft – this is 80’s London when gay men were apparently “going to die of ignorance” and “swirling around in a cesspit of their own making”. Petra’s ghost should be the spectre of AIDS, bringing the revenge that Don has been courting with his cock. The final bars of the opera are interrupted by the appearance of Samantha Hull’s Maggie Thatcher, which serves only to bring the applause to a stumbling halt. If there was an award for a badly timed interpolation, this would win hands down. There are relatively few people around to see it from the balcony anyway – once the bar stops dishing out free cocktails, numbers thin dramatically, and the performers have to compete with the bar staff crashing about, doors slamming and ignorant fools thinking that its perfectly acceptable to chat brightly to their friends. One particular trio of idiots talk so loudly that they receive several of my best Hard Stares, and eventually I am forced to ask them if they would be quite so rude if this were Covent Garden. I get blank looks in return, and shortly afterwards they start up again. My patience level drops though a hole in the floor and I turn and hiss “We are trying to listen. SHUT UP”. There’s a Professional Clapper somewhere behind me who starts the applause up after every aria.
The 80s aesthetic isn’t really carried through as well as it could be. Men’s tailoring in the 80s was about nipped in waists, padded shoulders and shiny materials (or slubbed linen), and there is precious little of this to be seen. Shirt collars of the period were either long and pointed or absent completely and every man did their top buttons up. Only the Don’s pale Miami Vice outfit (with appropriately rolled sleeves) looks the business here. Patrick Ashcroft’s Allan is particularly badly dressed and coiffed – in fact he looks like he has just got off the train at Charing Cross. Mark Cunningham’s Eddie wears a suit in a 2010 cut, although makes a nod to 80s style with Gordon Gecko-esque braces, white socks and shiny loafers. Helen Winter’s costume is decent and makes a nod to Madonna. Zoe Bonner’s Leo is very quietly dressed for a flash git’s PA, and Stephanie Edward’s Sloane Ranger outfit is barely noticeable – shoulder pads should have been bigger, tights should have been brightly coloured, blouse should have had a high ruffled collar. Men’s hair was generally slicked back with gel or quiffed and highlighted to within an inch of its life and again there’s little evidence of correct period style (it seems odd to refer to the 80s as “period”). Duncan Rock has what is known in the trade as “opera hair”– big and bouffy – and such a city slicker would probably have gelled it back solid.
Duncan Rock was probably born to play the role of Don Giovanni. He has a legitimate operatic bass-baritone; deep, commanding and perfectly placed. Most importantly, you can also hear every single word that comes out of his mouth. He also looks the part – perfectly pumped body, huge shoulders and the complete arrogant self-possession that goes with them. This is how the Don should be played – quite literally cock-sure. This Don is never going to be short of a bed partner. Against a voice like this, everyone else is going to be forced out of the shadows, and although there are a couple of other decent enough voices on stage, set against these Rock’s deep, chocolately tones, its always going to be a case of trying to catch up. Zoe Bonner may have a nice enough voice, but she’s left lagging a long way behind in comparison. If you can’t be heard over a 10 piece orchestra from 50 feet away, you ain’t going to be heard in the upper circle at La Scala, honey. Similarly, Stephanie Edwards sounds sparkly and agile but is simply outclassed. Patrick Ashcroft is a major worry – one of the problems of gender swapping all the roles is that he has to attempt some of Mozart’s most fiendish arias and, sadly, isn’t up to the challenge. In fact, some of his efforts are cringeworthy, exposing his lack of agility and projection. Still, if your production requires a tenor to sing an aria written for a coloratura soprano, what else do you expect?
Its hard to see exactly who this production is aimed at, because it falls between so many stools. Its slick, flashy, easy on the eye and the ear and, ultimately rather shallow, leaving me feeling curiously empty. Even the website http://www.dongiovannitheopera.com/ is an exercise in disappointment – most of the links merely lead you to blank pages. Perhaps the entire evening is a metaphor for the 80s themselves.
What the critics said: