'Today's Don Juans are in office' - Grant O'Rourke on modernising Molière

When Outlander actor Grant O’Rourke decided to write his own, Scottish-set version of Don Juan, he had a few contemporary parallels in mind, he tells Mark Fisher

Grant O'Rourke PIC: James Gourley/Shutterstock

Audiences often ask writers where they get their ideas from. Maybe a better question would be when. For Grant O'Rourke, it was three o'clock in the morning. One night earlier this year, he couldn't sleep so he got up and grabbed a copy of Molière's Don Juan, a play he'd last read two decades ago at drama school.

Until that moment, he saw himself exclusively as an actor. Save for the initial panic of lockdown when so much work disappeared, O'Rourke has built a successful career on stage and screen. His presence in a cast is always a sign of quality.

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As well as playing Rupert MacKenzie in Outlander, he has appeared in theatres all over Scotland and has done seasons at Pitlochry Festival Theatre and Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum. He won the award for Best Male Performance in the 2015 Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland for playing two siblings in The Venetian Twins at the Lyceum. He's been nominated twice more, for roles at Glasgow's Tron and Edinburgh's Gilded Balloon.

Steven McNicoll in rehearsals for Don Juan

But in the middle of the night – and the middle of the pandemic – he realised he was ready for something else. He'd long fancied the idea of writing, but the moment had never seemed right. He had been happy to wait until inspiration stuck. Now, though, he knew exactly what he wanted to do: it was time to write his own version of Don Juan.

"Writing something is the most excited I've been about my career in years," he says. "The pandemic made me realise how much of my creativity comes from working with other people. I was excited to write Don Juan in order to work with people on it – that was the driving force."

So it is that Grant O'Rourke arrives at Perth Theatre this month not as an actor but as a playwright. To lighten our post-lockdown spirits, he is fielding a comedy about a larger-than-life lothario who finds he can't always do as he pleases.

“The play is funny, but I also want you to emotionally connect with the characters," he says on a day off from filming in Shetland. "The best comedies are the ones that make you sad at times. Or you'll have a good laugh and then you'll walk out and say, 'Hold on a minute – I have a lot of thoughts about that.'"

Like the Molière play, O'Rourke's Don Juan is a womaniser with a rampant libido and a string of angry victims in his wake. But unlike the 1665 blueprint, this version is set on a Scottish island with a slimmed down cast of three. Joining Steven McNicoll in the title role of Lou Kemp's production are Cath Whitefield as sidekick Sganarelle and Amy Kennedy as the exploited Dona Elvira.

The update brings an edge of topicality. "Don Juan is painted as this dashing, romantic figure like Casanova," says O'Rourke. "But this is just some aristocrat who's using his status and wealth to manipulate vulnerable women. Where have we seen that recently? The Don Juans we have today are not on Love Island, they're in office."

Pleased to give three fellow actors such chunky roles, O'Rourke made a particular effort to bolster the female parts. "I felt it was important to write characters who are not just victims," he says. "There's much more agency, intelligence and capability about the characters."

When it comes to writing comedy, he operates on the same principle as he does when acting: if it makes him laugh, it'll probably make the audience laugh too. "My wife would quite often walk into the room with me giggling to myself while I was writing," he says. "When you work with the same people again, you have to try and surprise them. You still want to make them laugh. So you have to discover new things about yourself and tap into things that are viscerally funny as well as cerebrally funny. Comedy is so rich and huge that I don't think it'll ever get boring to me."

Other aspects of his move across the footlights have been revelatory. Sitting in on auditions, for example, made him think afresh about his own auditions, realising how much casting directors really do want every actor to succeed. Being in the first week of rehearsals was also strange. "It's tough," he laughs. "The rehearsal room is a proactive, creative space so it was weird to make the shift to being passive, sitting back and being there to address any issues they had. I couldn't sit down!"

And despite his long experience on stage, only now has he been invited to a production meeting for the first time. "It was super exciting," he says. "I embarrassed myself by how excited I was in front of these weary production managers. I was like a little kid."

The novelty has increased his appetite for more. "I definitely want to do more writing and I want to explore the process of theatremaking," he says. "I've been too interested in storytelling for too long not to explore every way I can do that. I would like to start a company that focuses on comedy because audiences want that now more than ever. And I want to find new young diverse writers, directors and actors and create some kind of space where everyone can feel like they have a voice."

Don Juan, Perth Theatre, 14–30 October, www.horsecross.co.uk

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