Playwright Ödön von Horváth had the kind of life that one couldn’t make up. A child of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, he settled in Germany in the 1930s and though a fierce critic of the Third Reich, remained there to document the rise of Nazism. After years of violent repression, he finally made it to Paris before the outbreak of war but was killed by a falling branch on the Champs-Élysées as he was on his way to the cinema. Consequently, many of his works were never performed in his lifetime such as Don Juan Comes Back From The War – now presented at the Finborough in a new version by Duncan Macmillan.
Here the famed lothario has been transplanted to a defeated Berlin at the end of the Great War, thoroughly worn out by the war mentally and physically, he returns from the battlefield to resume his life of decadent debauchery. But as he works his way through the hordes of grasping women desperate for a piece of this paragon of masculinity as his reputation would have you believe, his spiritual malaise grows as it becomes apparent that things are not as they were before and though he has tried his best to ignore them, his actions have sometimes terrible consequences.
Don Juan… is an unflinchingly brutal play – the desperation of the protagonist’s never-ending quest for perfection is thrown into stark relief by the relocation into war-ravaged times blighted by hyperinflation/demonetisation and where social norms and morality are crumbling away. Zubin Varla is hardly off the stage as the lusty lothario and is mesmerising throughout as a man whose certainties are being stripped away as he attempts to fight his nature and reach for his ‘pure bride’ whom he jilted at the altar – he thought perfection lay just around the corner yet there it remains. Varla cavorts, carouses, seduces, strips with persuasive sexual energy, but it is the agony that he can’t conceal that really touches one in what at times feels like a Herculean performance.
Around him, the female ensemble reconfigure themselves time and time to form the groups of women that mark Don Juan’s journey – the wine-swigging good-time girls that welcome him back, the nurses that care for him, the old flame who takes him in, the badminton-playing nuns who try to save him, the prostitutes who would take advantage of him. Rosie Thomson’s Mother stands out with a beautifully compassionate performance, trying to protect her daughter, Charlie Cameron as a strong winsome naïf – and herself – from the irresistible charms of the man she knew in the past. And there’s also excellent work from Laura Dos Santos who recurs powerfully in the final three scenarios.
Andrea Ferran’s direction does not shy away from the bleakness of the material but threads a vein of mordant dark humour – which could well have gone further to balance out the production as a whole – which underscores the tragedy of the story – whether you see it as the fruitless dreams of one man, or the identity crisis of a whole nation.