INTERVIEW: David Tennant & Patrick Marber Talk Updating Don Juan For 2017
David Tennant and Patrick Marber were interviewed by The Telegraph during rehearsals for Don Juan, which opened for previews at Wyndhams Theatre last night. Besides discussing the updates to the eleven-year old play, David also spoke about the third and final series of Broadchurch, his other upcoming projects and his frustration with social media.
David Tennant: 'I don’t think of myself as a seducer…'
‘There’s no inherent virtue in monogamy. Praise the priapic, not the parsimonious! Down with selfishness and up with me!” If you had to pick a play to rehearse in church, then Patrick Marber’s Don Juan in Soho, a lewd and caustic update that has the aristocratic shagger careering about modern London, would not be your first choice. But, as David Tennant and Marber troop out of rehearsal at the American Church in London, it’s clear that the experience is agreeing with them.
They make an unusual pair: Marber solid, smart-casual, deep-voiced and still, Tennant in a T-shirt, bouncing and fizzing with energy like an adolescent.
This is the first London revival for Marber’s play, which premiered in 2006 with Rhys Ifans as the pleasure-crazed, nihilistic earl. Marber’s grimly comic version of this character is, as his long-suffering manservant observes at one point, “a slag. He’d do it with anything – a hole in the ozone layer,” and the sheer unabashed wickedness of the role is something of a departure for Tennant. Even Wyndhams Theatre has had to slip a note in the publicity advising that no one bring along children under 16.
“I saw the play 11 years ago and enjoyed it, hugely,” Tennant says, “but I never really considered it as something I would do.” Why? He ponders, then twists and writhes. “Well, er… I never really think of myself as a seducer, er… so… but… Patrick sent it over… and…’’
He pulls himself together. “I was in Dorset doing Broadchurch, and I had a morning off from solving crime and so I sat in my hotel room and read it in one sitting. It all happened very swiftly after that.”
How deep did he have to dig, I wonder, to find the loucheness? The Don in Marber’s play is hilarious to watch but he’s also a terrifying figure: twisted as a corkscrew, psychopathically self-interested and as amoral as a snake, whether he’s breaking the heart of his hapless fiancée or bribing a Muslim tramp to renounce his god.
“Well,” says Tennant, “that’s what’s intriguing. There’s a sort of fantasy life in all of us which has no responsibility, which is guilt-free, which is all about indulging your baser instincts and not giving a s--- about the consequences. It’s delicious, isn’t it? To imagine what it would be like inside that mind.”
This isn’t quite Tennant’s first seducer. Just weeks before his first appearance in Doctor Who in 2005, he played Casanova in an adaptation of the 18th-century womaniser’s diaries directed by the Who showrunner Russell T Davies. “Ah,” he says, “but Casanova, certainly in Russell’s version, is very different. He was a sort of excitable puppy dog who had huge empathy, huge love and adoration, for womankind – and indeed mankind. Don Juan’s objective is much more selfish.”
His eyes gleam darkly. “It’s sociopathic, really, so it gives him a very different outlook.”
This production also marks a reunion for Marber and Tennant, who have known each other since the beginning of their careers. They met in 1995, when Marber had his first play, Dealer’s Choice, at the National Theatre and Tennant was rehearsing for a part in Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw. Now, 22 years later, Marber has three plays in London (he’s just been directing Tom Stoppard’s Travesties at the Apollo, and his adaptation of Hedda Gabler is playing at the National) and Tennant, with Doctor Who and the ITV crime drama Broadchurch behind him, is one of Britain’s best-known actors. “I’ve watched David go from being a very successful young stage actor to becoming a star,” says Marber. “I am not surprised. He’s brilliant.”
Surprisingly little in Marber’s 10-year-old play has needed to be updated for its revival. “It feels like yesterday we were first doing it,” says Marber wistfully. “Ten years isn’t a long time in a playwright’s life. In 2006 a DJ’s database was on a Blackberry, now it’s on an iPhone.”
But one important speech has been altered, in which the Don rails against an age of hypocrisy in which “governments don’t govern, newspapers invent news, peace-preaching rulers wage war” and “every tedious t--- in Christendom” has an opinion to share. “Hello, welcome to my blog. Today I bought a plum,” Tennant’s character says, mockingly. “You c---! You silly dozy twit, you’ve forgotten how to live! Whatever happened to privacy? To grace and decorum?”
“Yes,” says Marber. “That speech has to be up to date. I’ll update it during the run if something juicy happens.” Tennant, meanwhile, nods thoughtfully. “I find that a very easy speech to identify with. The idea that one has to be locatable at any moment. That you’re expected to have an opinion and a point of view, and even not having a point of view becomes a point of view: ‘Did not comment on Twitter.’ Maybe he just didn’t want to say anything! Maybe the phone’s run out of battery! There’s the sense that everyone’s expected to contribute to this… well, you call it a national conversation but it’s just noise. Everyone’s shouting louder to make their own tiny little voice heard.”
This is Tennant in relatively forthcoming mode but he clams up swiftly when asked about other projects. He bats back the suggestion that Broadchurch, now three episodes into its third series, needs to recover from a flabby second run – “I thought the second series was a beautifully clever piece of writing and I think the third is, too” – and he remains studiedly gnomic when I press him on the fate of his tormented detective Alec Hardy. “You don’t even want to breathe half a spoiler,” he says, “but I think it resolves itself satisfactorily.”
Isn’t it tiring, I wonder, operating in conditions of such secrecy all the time? Both Doctor Who and Broadchurch are now so cloaked in spoiler-averse obfuscation that it’s a wonder Tennant is ever allowed to open his mouth. “It makes it difficult to talk to people like yourself,” he says, with edginess.
On Doctor Who, however, he is even more tight-lipped. Would he countenance a female Doctor? “Sure,” he says, eyes darting. “It all depends on getting the right person.” Who would he cast? He visibly squirms. “Oh, well, I, ah, I’m very glad it’s not my decision.”
With Don Juan about to hit the stage, both men are already looking forward to new projects. Tennant is soon to appear in Mad to be Normal, a film based on the life of the maverick Glaswegian psychiatrist R D Laing – a “fascinating, hugely problematic figure,” he says – and, more unusually, he is providing the voice of the quacking billionaire plutocrat Scrooge McDuck in a new series of Disney’s Duck Tales.
Marber, meanwhile, has another play cooking. “I’ve been working on it for 12 years now,” he says. “In fact I’m still working on the play I was supposed to deliver in 2006 for Michael Grandage to direct. When I didn’t deliver it, he said, ‘Why don’t you do a version of Don Juan instead?’ ” Apart from that, and a film he can’t talk about, “I don’t know what I’m doing next year. That’s the beauty of this job; I love the adventure of it.”
Tennant eyes him mischievously. “Would you like me to see if I can get you a couple of episodes of Duck Tales Season 2?” he says. “I could have a word…” Marber grins as they sweep back into rehearsal.
“Ah, that’s the dream,” he says. “That’s why you’re here.”
Don Juan In Soho starring David Tennant will play at Wyndhams Theatre in London until June 10th. More information and tickets are available at www.donjuaninsoho.com.
Photo: Helen Maybanks