Incurable romantics: Don Juan in Soho and William Wordsworth

Byron floats in the background of Nicholas Pierpan’s William Wordsworth and Patrick Marber’s Don Juan in Soho

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The first chapter in any handbook on how to run a regional theatre would stress the importance of telling stories of local importance. Conrad Lynch, taking over stewardship of the artistically sharp and stunningly situated Theatre by the Lake, couldn’t have started much closer to home than with the world premiere production of William Wordsworth by Nicholas Pierpan.

The trap with a Wordsworth biodrama is offering a greatest hits from the life and writing, but Pierpan is disciplined about both risks. Only two poems are spoken – including “There Was a Boy”, in circumstances of personal extremity – and the time frame freezes in 1812.

Strikingly, this Wordsworth is only once seen outside, and even then in a cemetery, evidence of the playwright’s strategy to counter the stubborn historical image of the nature poet delivering soliloquies to daffodils. Instead Pierpan focuses on Wordsworth’s human nature. The poet is suffering crises professional – he has ceased to publish, fearing a dearth of receptive readers and reviewers – and medical: bursts of blindness and a son with measles, at that time often fatal. But his greatest pressure is financial: the long historical dilemma of how to be a radical and pay the rent.

There might have been fears that a play staged so close to Wordsworth’s birthplace in Cockermouth would give home advantage to the poet, but John Sackville’s ascetic, even priggish William has to fight for the audience’s sympathy against the sensual, rambunctious Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Daniel Abelson). The play vividly sketches the men’s tense friendship.

This venue is a nightmare for designers, because even a seven-figure budget and the hottest digital technology couldn’t match the astonishing natural cyclorama of lake, park and hills outside the theatre’s front door. Andrew D Edwards, however, creates an elegant box of sliding interior schemes with distorted images of the Lake District, like abstract postcards, beyond.

The director, Michael Oakley, has assembled an impressive cast that also features Terence Wilton, whose enjoyably pompous Lonsdale proves more cunning than he seems, and Joseph Mydell as Sir George Beaumont, the middleman between the poets and the establishment they despise politically but need financially. With some tightening of dialogue and a less abrupt ending, English Touring Theatre, the co-producer, could have a hit.

In Pierpan’s play, Byron is always just about to come on (at one point literally: he’s said to be outside the door), but, like Shakespeare in Peter Whelan’s The Herbal Bed, he never arrives, and presumably for the same reason: that he would stop the show if he did. Byron also attends from a distance the action of Patrick Marber’s Don Juan in Soho, his great poem “Don Juan” having been vital in defining the character of the Spanish libertine. But Marber is more directly indebted to Molière – whose 1665 comedy he has relocated and updated for a play first seen in 2006 – and to Mozart: the music from Don Giovanni for the descent into hell starts and concludes a soundtrack that also intermittently breaks into dance music.

In Marber’s modernisation, the doomed seducer becomes “DJ”, an aristocrat whose addictions to drink and drugs and sex would lead to all leave being cancelled at the Priory. The scroll of the don’s conquests, a central feature in the opera, is now kept on a shag-app stored on the iPhone of his valet, Stan. In this contemporary, secular setting, damnation does not seem real, and Marber also removes the possible consequences of reckless sex: disease and descendants. The sense of danger that Molière, Mozart and Byron brought to the story crackles only in a scene where DJ tries to provoke a Muslim street-sleeper to blaspheme for profit by insulting the Prophet, and a provocative speech in which DJ argues that he deserves heroic status for not being hypocritical about his greed and selfishness, unlike a roll-call of media and social media offenders encompassing politicians, bankers, coppers, celebrities, bloggers and vloggers.

The reason for this lavish West End revival is the casting in the title part of David Tennant, who vies with Benedict Cumberbatch for Britain’s most bankable male actor. As in Broadchurch, he is a pleasure to watch, his performance a detailed accumulation of meticulous vocal and bodily decisions, as when, by waiting, DJ forces Stan to move a glass on a table closer three times before he will condescend to drink from it.

Few in the audience will have bought tickets specifically to watch Adrian Scarborough as Stan, but all will go home thrilled to have seen him. In a fair world, this tremendous actor (adept at finding the tragedy in comedy, and vice versa) would be as well known as Tennant. But, as all versions of the Don Juan legend attest, just deserts are sometimes slow to come.

“William Wordsworth” is at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, Cumbria, until 22 April

“Don Juan in Soho” is at Wyndham’s Theatre, London WC2, until 10 June

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. 

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue