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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 330-331
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Don Juan. By Molière. Stockholm Royal Dramatic Theatre, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh. 15 August 2000.
This year's Edinburgh International Festival (13 August to 2 September) offered a primarily anglophone audience an opportunity to see a play written in French, adapted and performed in Swedish, with projected supertitles in English. Mats Ek, of Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theatre, staged Molière's Don Juan with a recent translation of the French text by Göran O. Eriksson. Eriksson and Ek's slick adaptation, including such modern elements as handguns, heroin, and Viagra, left very little baroque in this seventeenth-century play. The production was set amongst a minimalist collection of shabby hotel furniture and retro ensembles that defied any specific time period. Moreover, Ek's mise en scène transformed Molière's classical comedy into something akin to modern dance theatre. Despite these alterations, this adaptation of Molière's classic retained all the biting humor and tragic undercurrents of the original text. [End Page 330]
Trained in both theatre and dance, Ek left the Royal Dramatic in 1973 to pursue a career as performer and later choreographer with the Cullbert Ballet. His dance experience is evident in Don Juan, his first text-based production in twenty-seven years. Between each act, the actors departed temporarily from Molière's fiction, cavorting about the stage to bursts of rock-inspired music, like finely choreographed buffoons. Although most dance-sequences occurred during set-changes, Ek also used choreography within the scenes to underscore certain climactic moments in the dialogue. The most dramatic of these occurred near the end of the performance, in a marvelously physical reprise of Donna Elvire's farewell to the man who pursued, seduced, and subsequently betrayed her. In precise balletic movements, Elvire (Nina Togner Fex) leaped into and out of Don Juan's (Mikael Persbrandt) arms. Their passionate physical responses articulated the entire range of emotional ambiguities ingrained in their tumultuous relationship: attraction, desire, tenderness, rupture, reconciliation, and ultimate separation. This manner of physical expression also heightened the tension in the verbal rivalry between Charlotte (Lena Nilsson) and Mathurine (Nadja Weiss), two simpletons clawing for Don Juan's superficial attention. The choreography accentuated their often vulgar character traits, much as Pierrot's (Carl-Magnus Dellows) cumbersome and arrhythmic movements reinforced the tragically oafish tone of his words.
Like an oversexed, yet road-weary, rock star in long black wig and silk-shirt unbuttoned to the navel, Persbrandt's Don Juan dominated the stage, simultaneously seducing his companions and scaring them half to death. As the lies dripped from his lips, he radiated erotic authority so convincingly that everyone, both onstage and in the house, immediately understood resistance would be futile. At his side, an impressively acrobatic Sganarelle (Niklas Ek) played the fool to his wayward lord, brushing off his master's attacks with mischievous winks at the audience.
The one significant reprieve from the physicality of this performance occurred in act 5, as Don Juan pronounced his famous monologue about the art of skillful hypocrisy. Nestled in an oversized armchair that made him seem uncharacteristically childlike, Persbrandt delivered the speech while gazing motionless into the blue light of a television screen. Ek seemed to suggest that, like Molière's narcissistic libertine, our cynical and media-crazed world can find little solace in society's obsession with shallow images and individual self-preservation.
Ek's most daring innovation, perhaps, took shape in the final scene, as Don Juan is forced to confront his past sins in the stony grip of the dead Commander. Unlike traditional productions, where the statue physically overwhelms the protagonist, this phantom took the form of a pre-adolescent boy, nearly half the size of Persbrandt's hulking Don. This eerie juxtaposition of the ghost's deadly curse with the child's apparent guiltlessness was chilling. Rather than being hurled into the depths of a fiery Hell, Persbrandt was yanked upward some six feet above the floor, then left to dangle for a few moments as Sganarelle cried...