Tuesday 14 December 2021

Radio review: Don Juan

Not for the first time, and to be honest I think it's unlikely to be the last time this year, Covid has caused the show I was due to see tonight to be cancelled. And once again I've turned to BBC radio drama for an alternative, and Robin Brooks' Don Juan, an adaptation of the first few cantos of Lord Byron's epic satirical poem. Byron's version of Juan (Matthew Tennyson) isn't a famed lothario, or at least not yet, but a beautiful but gormless teenager who proves irresistible to all the young women he meets, especially those with husbands or fathers who'd disapprove. So he first catches the eye of neighbour Donna Julia (Pippa Nixon,) unhappily married to a much older man, who seduces Juan and then gets caught with him in a bedroom farce when her husband returns. Juan flees the city and is shipwrecked, and found by Haidée (Dolores Carbonari,) who also falls for him - and this time it's her fearsome pirate father who causes them trouble.

This middle encounter has a bit more emotional depth but it's back to the farce for a final section featuring a Sultana (Keziah Joseph,) a eunuch (Cyril Nri) and Juan being put in drag so he can hide among the Sultana's retinue of women - all of whom suddenly and inexplicably become obsessed with the new "girl." Edward Bennett narrates as Byron himself, and Brooks frames the story as Byron discussing what he wants to achieve with the work with Mephistopheles (Julian Bleach,) sure, why not. The poem was published in installments so as the story continues we get to hear Byron react with irritation to the reviews of the story so far.

Making the women the sexually forward ones means this could have been the classic portrayal of foul temptresses seducing an innocent man, but whether it's Byron's writing, or Brooks' adaptation and Fiona McAlpine's production, we actually get something a bit more modern: The women are the ones with the personality here, while Juan has very little agency of his own (and hardly any lines,) and just gets buffeted around by circumstance. For the most part this is light and comic with slightly forced rhymes ("Juan to rhyme with Ewan,") and Byron is surprisingly rude about the Greeks for someone they consider an adopted national hero. My attention drifted a bit but Bennett is really the star here, his sardonic reading of the poem is what gives this adaptation its personality.

Don Juan by Lord Byron, adapted by Robin Brooks, is available on BBC Sounds until the 11th of January.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

Image credit: Birmingham Museums Trust.

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