David Tennant stars as the rutting rake in Patrick Marber’s sprightly update of Molière’s comic morality play. Watching him, I was reminded of Christopher Hampton’s comment that the actor playing Molière’s Don Juan must seduce the audience. It is precisely because Tennant invests a heartless libertine, now simply known as DJ, with a beguiling, fleet-footed charm that Marber’s update acquires a subversiveness it lacked on its first outing at the Donmar Warehouse in 2006.
Everything about Marber’s DJ offends the canons of political correctness. He treats women as foxes to be hunted. He wantonly discards his do-gooding bride, Elvira. At one point, he is assiduously fellated by one woman while he hits on another, a young bride whose husband he has severely maimed. In the words of his servant, Stan, he’s a sexual pirate: “He’d do it with anything – a hole in the ozone layer.” For good measure, DJ lies expediently to his rich father and shamelessly exploits the loyal Stan, whom he cheats of his wages.
So why does this privileged monster provoke our appalled fascination? His nihilism and defiance of a damnation-threatening statue carry little charge in an irreligious age. But Marber, cunningly following Molière, makes DJ a rampant enemy of hypocrisy.
At one point, in a topical gag that elicits cheers, he claims: “I’m not a rapist – I don’t grab pussy.” He also has a key soliloquy in which he rails at everything from billionaire tax dodgers to racists posing as patriots and condemns the vanity of an age in which the urge for self-expression has dwindled into: “Hello, welcome to my vlog. Today I bought a plum.” The irony is that DJ is, in many ways, the biggest narcissist of all.
It is Tennant’s performance that gives the play a disturbing ambivalence. He skips nimbly from one seduction to the next. He is whimsically comic: recalling a urinal encounter with a rival, he mimetically contrasts the relative size of their organs. Having rescued his brother-in-law from vicious thugs, he pirouettes across the stage with balletic glee before raising two fingers to his own attacker. Tennant’s real skill lies in suggesting that DJ is a priapic Peter Pan: a man-boy sadly incapable of love, as shown by his blank stare when Stan declares his undying devotion. Tennant gives us a memorable portrayal of the desolation of hedonism.
Adrian Scarborough is equally good as his potato-faced sidekick, who records his master’s conquests on a database and is compounded of envy and exasperation. Gawn Grainger as the hero’s duped dad, Danielle Vitalis as the angrily bewitched Elvira and Dominique Moore as the open-mouthed Lottie provide assured support. Although I wish it were played without interval and that Anna Fleischle’s design did more to evoke the raffish squalor of Soho, Marber’s production nicely blends Mozartian echoes with modern rock.
What is unnerving, however, is Tennant’s capacity to make us empathise with an impenitent egotist driven by sexual obsession.
• At Wyndham’s theatre, London, until 10 June. Box office: 0844 482 5120.