Occasionally you come across a piece of theatre that putters along amiably and entertainingly for most of its running time without ever really wowing you that suddenly becomes gripped by some impish impulse as the end comes into sight that results in it delivering a final scene of genuine emotional clout.
It doesn’t happen all to often but when it does it’s very pleasing, like an elderly aunt divulging the fact she once had a quickie with Mick Jagger after an excess of lunchtime wine.
This production of Moliere’s 1665 tragicomedy Don Juan by Gorčin Stojanović for Belgrade’s Jugoslovensko Dramsko Pozoriste is a bit like this (Belgrade, like London, is having a bit of a Moliere moment it seems; there are productions of Tartuffe and The Hypochondriac also playing at JDP where Stojanovic is director – 2017 was an election year in Serbia too it’s worth noting).
This is no modern urban update along the lines of Patrick Marber’s West End reworking. It’s a faithful take on the text enlivened considerably by the rapport between its two leads – Vojin Ćetković as the scoundrel Don Juan and a scene-stealing Sergej Trifunović as his manservant Sganarelle – but only in its final scenes does it really let loose.
While Stojanović’s production is often funny and there are moments of pleasing absurdism – one gets the impression the director has watched a bit of Monty Python in his time – there are also moments when it coasts on the sizeable charms of its leads.
Ćetković is an intriguingly low-key and somewhat melancholic Don Juan while Trifunović is a schlubby and puppyish Sganarelle, his fuzzy belly always threatening to escape his trousers. Even when carrying his master around like a packhorse or giving the impression of having being caught mid-shit when summoned onstage, he’s always more than just a clown and a foil. He gives such an exuberant and charismatic performance that there are times where he would be in danger of overly dominating the production were it not for the surpassingly tender and complex relationship between him and Ćetković. When he disguises himself as a doctor – a costume that in this case consists primarily of a stethoscope and some Disney ears (possibly Pluto, possibly Goofy) – he listens for his master’s heartbeat and cannot find it and he can’t hide his concern. While he can clearly see exactly what kind of man his master is, there relationship is driven by more than fear and fiscal reward – it was more shaded than that. There are other small moments of gentleness and delicacy too: Don Juan lays down with the spectral veiled woman who comes for him; he cradles her.
Things go a bit wobbly in the middle section – it’s a faithful adaptation so we get the bulk of the text, as a result there is a bit of padding and the pacing sags – but the production also has a pleasing rebellious streak. Having spent some time hymning the many pleasures of tobacco, Sganarelle pauses to share a smoke with an audience member. Later he takes a spectacular tumble off the front of the stage.
The director has appealing pyromaniac tendencies too. Throughout the production we hear slightly jarring bursts of opera and there are occasional interjections from the figure of time – here a woman with striking red hair and a black hat. In the distinctive final scene, these dots are joined together. Up until now the design has been on the basic side, now a giantess in a gold dress with the voice of a soprano, sung by Katarina Jovanović, is wheeled onto the stage. She represents Hell – the place Don Juan knows he is headed eventually – and as she sings, the flame-haired figure of Time sets off a forest of metronomes at the same time as a constellation of alarm clocks descends from above. (There are many timepieces in this show – Robert Icke would be in his element).
Then – then – Stojanović basically lights half the set on fire. It’s a proper oh-wow moment. But it would have far less of an impact if Trifunović didn’t look quite so broken by what he is witnessing, quite so desolate. The whole of this last section is surprisingly moving in fact. It’s the culmination of a subtler and more intriguing character study than I was expecting. (It’s worth noting I was watching a subtitled performance, so am a little fuzzy on some of the details of his decline). Don Juan seems oddly accepting of his lot and the path he has embarked on. But while the last scene is a dazzler it does leave you wishing they’d uncorked the good stuff a little bit earlier in the night.
For more information on Jugoslovensko Dramsko Pozoriste’s Don Juan, click here.