Don Juan Comes Back from the War could be considered a German ‘State of the nation’ play by a Hungarian-raised writer: Ödön von Horváth was a child of the Austro-Hungarian empire who wrote in German and stayed in Germany to observe the Third Reich first-hand when many others were escaping. This play was written in 1936, but wasn’t premiered until 1952, fourteen years after von Horváth’s death, as it surely would have been unstageable in Hitler’s Germany. The story of this heartless seducer who eventually gets his comeuppance in hell has been told by countless writers and composers and in his modernised continuation, von Horváth has the notorious womaniser playing out his crisis of masculinity in Berlin after the mass loss of lives in ‘War to end all wars’ and during an economic meltdown, where neither the Don nor the city are as robust as they once were.
Upon entering the auditorium, the themes of sex and violence are set up immediately as the air is filled with the sound of the crashing of bombs, while an orgy takes place in the bath. “The most famous penis in Berlin” is in his element drinking champagne and surrounded by adoring women, but once the siren wails and the party is over, reality rears its gloomy head in the form of a gun-wielding landlady demanding payment. As the only man on stage and seemingly the only one in Berlin, the Don has all the women to himself but is physically and mentally scarred from the battlefields and pursued by the family of the ‘perfect’ bride he jilted at the altar who want him dead.
In the title role, Zubin Varla seems miscast; he’s an interesting actor, but isn’t conventionally handsome and doesn’t have the allure to convince as the seducer in whose presence nuns renounce their vows. However, there is something about his performance that doesn’t belong in the real world, particularly when he explains that a mundane domestic life is the same as being neutered, which to a fabled womaniser is a fate worse than death.
The six women flit between playing nuns, nurses and prostitutes with ease, even if the episodic structure and bitty characterisation means that few of them are able to make a lasting impact. Rosie Thomson brings compassion to the most substantial female role and the heart of the play, a former conquest whom Don Juan barely remembers and now a widow emancipated by the opportunity to work outside the home during the war but sent back into the kitchen once the men return. Torn between disgust and concern, she expresses her bitterness at being one of hundreds, while encouraging him to engage in a more mature kind of relationship with a woman of his own age. However convincingly she speaks, a leopard never changes his spots; her playful young daughter (the excellent Charlie Cameron), who is more experienced in the ways of the world than her mother realises, inevitably catches the Don’s eye.
Duncan Macmillan’s new version has a pared-down use of language (and more than one use of the dreadful expression ‘I was sat’, etc.), which isn’t entirely in synch with Andrea Ferran’s direction, which is rather lethargic in places. Edward Lewis’s ominous soundscape and Neil Brinkworth’s lighting work together seamlessly, and Ellan Parry’s striking design suggests a run-down urban setting and prison, with metal grill for a floor and barbed wire at the back of the stage. This sense of imprisonment ideally suits a play that shows how people can be just as trapped in peacetime as in wartime.