There comes a strange point in a playwright’s life when their earlier works are revived. Revivals mark success, but they smack with anxiety too. “It does make you feel old,” says Patrick Marber, wryly, who is about to direct David Tennant in his comedy Don Juan in Soho, which premiered 10 years ago at the Donmar Warehouse, with Rhys Ifans as the libidinous protagonist, playing one of history’s best-known sex addicts with a thin-legged gusto, swearing and staggering his way around the stage.
If Marber feels old at least, aged 52, he has crammed a lot in. Growing up in West London, he went up to Oxford at 18, where he fell into both comedy and gambling. The former became a hobby, the latter an addiction. At one stage he was losing thousands of pounds a night, and had to be bailed out by his father.
After graduating, Marber’s career took on a lurching, sinuous rhythm. He played Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan on The Day Today, and co-created the character Alan Partridge, alongside Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci. His first play, Dealer’s Choice, inspired by his dark and deeply personal experiences of gambling dens, won a letter of praise from Harold Pinter. In 1997, the explosive Closer secured his reputation as one of the most scintillating, daring writers of his generation. Packed into a taut, visceral script, its focus on sex and sordid behaviour was soon translated into a starry Hollywood movie. His screenplay of Zoë Heller’s book Notes on a Scandal was nominated for an Oscar.
But then one day, it stopped. Crippled with a severe case of writer’s block, Marber’s work ground to a sudden, stubborn halt. “It feels like a kind of death,” he says slowly, searching for the words to describe his stultification.
“I don’t feel so alive if I’m not being creative. When I couldn’t write, I felt like a zombie.”
Eventually, Marber was coaxed back into work by the company at the Donmar, who asked him to rework the 17th-century Trelawney of the Wells. “Just being in the rehearsal room, I was able to do it. It was a manageable little chunk. I will always be grateful to them for that job.”
The manageable little chunk soon snowballed. Marber’s output became zealously unstoppable. Alongside a group of friends, he bought his local football club, Lewes F.C., and wrote The Red Lion, which probed the moral contradictions at the heart of the sport. Last year saw him at the peak of his powers. He directed Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, unanimously declared a smash hit, and wrote the script for Ivo van Hove’s Hedda Gabler starring Ruth Wilson who is, according to Marber, “a phenomenon”. Thematically, Don Juan was the natural next step: Gabler and Juan are both savage, hypnotic characters who rage, furiously, against the inadequacies of their times.
David Tennant and the cast of Don Juan in Soho during rehearsals
Before director Michael Grandage asked Marber to update Molière’s classic play in 2006, Marber didn’t know much about the legendary scoundrel. “I came to it completely naively. I had heard of this mythical character Don Juan, and I had seen the opera by Don Giovanni, but I didn’t know much about it as a myth or a story.
“I think I was drawn to it because I was married with three young children. And this was the story of a man who has no interest in family, marriage, children. He was only selfish and and hedonistic, and I was living the opposite life to that.” There is a faintly wistful slant to his tone. Is he tempted? “Oh, I would love to be in Don Juan’s shoes for a weekend. Not that I was ever handsome enough to be a Don Juan.”
There is a twisted allure to the man Marber rechristened D.J. for the modern era. Demonic, abrasive and unabashedly filthy, he is fitted with a bold, convoluted streak of integrity, bluntly rejecting the hypocrisy of his surroundings. “He is a fabulous antihero. Just as he spends his time seducing women, he gradually seduces the audience to his way of thinking,” says Marber.
Adrian Scarborough and David Tennant in rehearsals
If revivals highlight gradual cultural shifts—this time round, D.J. carries an iPhone rather than a Blackberry, and references vloggers not bloggers—they also point, glaringly, to entire paradigm shifts. A decade after the play was first staged, the notion of hypocrisy—now dominating international headlines—has taken on a crazed, hyperbolic weight. This time round, under its slick, quick facade of sex and suggestion, Marber’s play, with its emphasis on artifice and insincerity, is lit by a strange solemnity.
“I remember writing the play in the summer of 2006. It seems like a much more innocent time than now. Pre-Trump. Pre-Brexit. It’s not that 2006 was the greatest time to be alive, but I dare say it was a more optimistic time. And that was only 10 years ago.”
In its lampooning of hypocrisy, Marber hopes Don Juan will offer audiences a much-needed dose of catharsis, too. “It’s escapist, and about a man who goes: ‘Despite the horrors of the world, I’m going to live for pleasure.’”
And what next for Marber himself? He is keen to get back to writing, and wants to work on a play he started in back in 2006, but then produced Don Juan instead. And what of the block that derailed him in the past? “It’s always there. A soft, muffled drumbeat of fear,” he says. He’ll probably produce a few more West End winners before the year is out.—Isobel Thompson
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Credit: Helen Maybanks