Theatre reviews: Don Juan | My Name is Sarah and...

Grant O’Rourke’s update of Moliere’s 1665 version of Don Juan is both thought-provoking and hugely entertaining, writes Joyce McMillan

Steven McNicoll and Cath Whitefield in Perth Theatre's Don Juan PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Don Juan, Perth Theatre ****

My Name is Sarah and..., Oran Mor, Glasgow ****

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A benighted island, a suffering population, and a lord and master whose only credo is freedom, self-indulgence, and the enlargement of his own wealth and power, particularly over comely women.

Oh yes, there’s something very familiar about the scenario sketched out by Grant O’Rourke – one of Scotland’s leading actors, and a star of Outlander – in his first venture as a stage writer, now playing at Perth Theatre, and his chosen vehicle is an update of Moliere’s 1665 version of the story of Don Juan, the tale of a man who believes he can get away with having no moral sentiments at all.

Don Juan, though, is not Moliere’s easiest play. Unlike his rollicking and tightly-structured domestic comedies, it wears its political and satirical intentions on its sleeve, using its wandering picaresque structure to make space for long scenes satirising the absurdities of contemporary society, notably the posturing bluster of a cowardly and dim-witted aristocracy.

In rewriting the drama in a modern Scots vernacular, O’Rourke therefore adopts the same strategy, letting rip with thoughts on entitlement, impunity, failures of accountability, and sexual abuse perpetrated by the powerful, that have a strong contemporary ring, although Moliere would have recognised them all.

The result is sometimes more like an extended two-and-a-half hour sketch show than an absorbing drama; and the sketch-like effect is greatly exaggerated by the sheer pressure of trying to deliver this drama – which in Moliere’s version has 18 speaking parts – with a cast of just three actors, brilliantly poised and versatile though they are.

Despite all these difficulties, though, Lu Kemp and her company succeed in delivering a hugely entertaining evening of thought-provoking jokery, thanks largely to the energy of O’Rourke’s script, to Steven McNicoll’s commanding performance as the money-grubbing Don – at once charismatic and repellent – and to Cath Whitefield as his long-suffering servant Sganarelle, who is not only by Don Juan’s side in every scene of the story, but is also tasked with introducing and framing the tale, as Sganarelle finally appears to indict the Don before some ultimate court of divine justice.

Add a superb Amy Kennedy as the betrayed Donna Elvira and other victims of Don Juan’s charm, and a memorable voice-over from Brian Cox as the Don’s murdered dad, speaking from beyond the grave, and the result is a thoroughly memorable piece of 21st century theatre, not without its ups and downs, but - like the National Theatre of Scotland current version of Ibsen’s Enemy Of The People - more than capable of paying profound tribute to a classic drama, while making it matter, in our time.

There’s a more straightforward theatrical journey for Sarah, the solo heroine of Brian James O’Sullivan’s new one-woman mini-musical My Name Is Sarah And… , premiered last week at A Play, A Pie And A Pint; but although her path from deepening thirtysomething alcoholism to tentative recovery is familiar in outline, O’Sullivan’s 65-minute play-with-songs, superbly performed by Dani Heron, fills in the detail of Sarah’s story so vividly, and with such musical energy, that it emerges as an irresistible short drama on a vital theme.

A high-functioning advertising writer based in Glasgow, Sarah at first finds it almost impossible to acknowledge the depth of her problem, until a series of painful events finally set her on the path to change.

But it proves a complicated journey, every step of which is carefully and passionately reflected both in O’Sullivan’s music, and in a performance by Dani Heron (directed by Lesley Hart).

Don Juan is at Perth Theatre until 30 October; My Name Is Sarah And…. run completed.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

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