Don Juan in Soho – the death of the shocking?

Cadell Blackstock, author of Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’itself an adaptation of the Don Juan story, reflects on Patrick Marber’s latest production of his own play, starring David Tennant as the eponymous DJ.

DJinSohoEven Patrick Marber would admit that reviews of the new production of Don Juan in Soho, his contemporary adaptation of Moliere’s Dom Juan currently running in London’s West End, have been mixed. Reading them before I went to a performance last night, I was surprised by just how divided critics have been. It’s an energetic, well-staged production and Tennant is – to my mind – rakish in disposition as well as character, inhabiting the small stage with flawless poise and a beautiful control of his own physical space. But I left the theatre wondering if the critical reception had more to do with the problem that a contemporary adaptation of this particular morality tale creates, than any flaws in the production.

Marber has updated the play since its first performances in 2006, infusing some clever references to the current US President as well as more diverse cultural benchmarks. But what really stood out for me was DJ’s gorgeous late soliloquy where he lambasts and belittles the contemporary obsession with parading our lives in public for all to see. ‘Whatever happened to privacy?’ he demands before excoriating our desire to share every last fragment of all that should be kept to ourselves. It’s a theme I explore in Crash (though it was written before social media really exploded) through Crash’s sudden ability to hear the thoughts of everyone around him. As a celebrity, Crash has lost his own privacy, but he is the same willing conspirator in that as we are in our own loss of privacy now. He did it to himself and he has to pay the price for that. As beer brand Bud Light puts it in its current poster campaign, ‘The internet never forgets’.

But watching the play last night, I wondered whether Marber’s problem now is one that didn’t exist 11 years ago: that the world has become so chaotic and we have been exposed to so much awfulness, transgression and disdain for decency and truth, that our ability to be shocked has diminished exponentially, almost to nothing. Marber has written comically, to be sure, to save this from being a miserably dark tale of self-destruction, but when you really get down to it, absolutely nothing DJ does is remotely shocking. He does not transgress. We accept his behaviour in the context of what is common now: everyone’s right to do as they please. So what saves a modern adaptation of Don Juan from being nothing more than fluent comedy?

Crash Cole in 'The Rake Spared' coverI asked myself that same question when I wrote Crash. Though I borrowed more from Mozart’s Don Giovanni than Moliere, I chose to tell the story of his decline indirectly by considering whether he has any relationship whatsoever with his own conscience.  There is a point at the end of Don Giovanni as he faces up to the statue of the Commendatore where you sense a filament of doubt in Giovanni’s mind: has it all been worth it? It would depend on the ‘it’, of course. What sort of ‘it’ might genuinely cause him to wonder? And what sort of ‘it’ would still be shocking enough to our contemporary state of mind?

Conscience is a difficult thing to explore, especially through the eyes of someone who doesn’t apparently have one. In the opera, the moment of uncertainty is so fleeting you might not notice it were the music not so deeply unsettling in itself. And it wouldn’t be a retelling of Don Juan if he had regrets from the outset. His flagrant disregard is part of what makes him so compelling, so charming. So I decided to explore where the tipping point is of understanding the terminal impact of his own actions. And one of the best ways to do that in the context of the original story was to approach it from the other side of the moment when it would matter: his death.

When Crash wakes up at the start of the novel from an almost fatal incident, he has physically passed the tipping point, but he can’t remember what it is. Suspended virtually at the point of his own death, and hostage to those who have kept him alive, he must retrace his steps through his filthy disregard for others to find out what he did, and why someone has tried to kill him over it.

Marber’s DJ ultimately doesn’t care. He is living the life he most wants to lead. ‘At least my lies are honest,’ he claims at the start of that soliloquy. He cannot shock himself. But for me – and perhaps for the critics of Marber’s current production – the absence of genuinely shocking behaviour for anyone, particularly Elvira’s brother Aloysius, creates a narrative dilemma. DJ is simply being as self-indulgent as the rest of us when we tweet our every thought. He is not shocking us, not any more, because in 11 years since this play was last produced, life has become so appallingly predictable in all its awfulness.

It will remain to be seen whether my choice of shocking behaviour for Crash will last the test of time or not. But there’s so much more to Don Juan than how finely he treads the line between right and wrong, or how that line moves. It’s how his voice – and that of the statue – echoes in us.

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You can find out more about Crash here on the allonymbooks blog, you can read about the similarities between Don Giovanni and How I Met Your Mother here, or you can download the book at Amazon.

Love him or hate him, you’ll want to get to know him: Cadell Blackstock on his creation Crash Cole

You only have to turn on the TV or flick through a magazine to see how much attention our wicked sides are getting from the media and advertisers. Soap operas love their villains, newspaper column inches are devoted to moral ambiguity and the thinner sort of woman’s magazine is full of headlines including the word ‘cheat’. Doesn’t everyone love a rogue?

Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’ began seven years ago as the collision, literally, of two quite distinct ambitions. One of them was to concede at last the love-hate relationship I have with opera, that normally loiters in the shadows. Opera’s affinity with darkness is often revealed as compellingly as any movie and though I might never admit this down the pub, some of my favourite anti-heroes are not Loki or Blofeld but the operatic bastards: Mozart’s Count Almaviva or Puccini’s Scarpia. Operatic stories tend to be very good ones, if at times  laboriously realised for those of us who are tone-deaf or ignorant of German, and I had long felt that an operatic libretto might retell and translate effectively in novel form.

My other motivation was to try to process the increasing hysteria that follows people in the public eye, to try to understand it and fashion it in such a way that it became the backdrop to a story. The extreme reactions people show to public phenomena and public figures has only been exacerbated by twitter in recent years, but in 2006 one event in particular caught my attention. After the near epic reaction to the death of Princess Diana in 1996, the dragster accident which nearly claimed the life of British TV presenter Richard Hammond presented a different kind of challenge to the British public. Hammond was lucky enough to live, but he was seriously injured, and his rescue, recovery and rehabilitation were  exhaustively covered by the TV and newspaper media. I was fascinated by the level of interest shown in Hammond – a popular personality who, with his good looks, good sense of humour, knowledge of cars and bikes, and suitably British sense of self-deprecation, was appealing to both men and women – and by the way people responded quite personally to his situation. It wasn’t particularly that it could have happened to one of us rather than to him – he was driving a jet-powered dragster at 288mph when he crashed – but that his real life persona, his lack of artifice, and the fact that he wasn’t playing a character in his work made his accident very real to us. The inability of audiences to disassociate the real person from the fictional has always interested me, but here was an example of a very real kind of empathy. People literally felt for Hammond. After the emotional tidal wave around Princess Diana’s funeral it was a small step for me as a writer to imagine how that might manifest in a different way after an accident like Hammond’s.*

So, back to the story. Which opera to retell? I wanted to write about a huge character, big in the public consciousness. I wanted someone who inspires sympathy, empathy, envy, hatred and attraction. Someone men want to be and women want to be with. Someone who, when suffering a near tragedy, will inspire most of those people to want him to survive, perhaps in spite of their rational selves. Yet success does not generally come to those who have been entirely nice, good, or well-behaved. I wanted this figure to be divisive, dramatic, compelling but not necessarily in a good way. So who else but Don Juan, recast as Don Giovanni by Mozart in 1787? A great lover, adored by so many for what he is, not who he is, a man who takes what he wants without thought to the consequences. What men among us don’t secretly harbour a version of Don Giovanni inside them?

And so Crash was born, a mostly popular public figure, a façade, a construction of, by and for his fans, who has an accident which nearly kills him. Only is it an accident at all, or is it the consequence of Crash’s own actions, the wilful desire to have his own way finally caught up with him? On the verge of his passing, Crash is saved by the literal adoration of those same fans, their love and affection hauling him back from the brink of death. But what is the life that Crash almost left behind? And as he races the press to find out the truth about his accident, what will happen to the co-dependence between him and his fans? Can they keep him alive or will the truth kill him?

Seven years on since I first wrote the book, that intimate overblown relationship between star, media and public has become even more extreme than it was then, and perhaps it is a shame that twitter and facebook were not as strongly established at the time the novel was written to merit reference, though they would not have changed the story. Bringing the novel to publication in 2013, I decided not to update the novel to include reference to social media, because it was a detail that did not alter the central premise. It is not that the novel belongs to its time but rather, like Don Juan and Don Giovanni, that the story of love, hate and revenge stands the test of time.

Love him? Hate him? Crash is a divisive figure who feeds the public consciousness much as they feed his need to be alive. I hope you’ll want to get to know him though. He remains one of the best characters I have ever written, and I am delighted to let him out into the light.

To buy a copy of Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’ by Cadell Blackstock, visit Amazon UK or Amazon US or search the European Amazon sites for Cadell Blackstock)

*It should be noted that this is not a novel about Richard Hammond – if he will forgive me, it was only his accident that inspired me to write this story, and not the man himself. I was as relieved as anyone that he made a full recovery.

Cadell Blackstock interviews Crash Cole, star of his new novel ‘Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’ – new to Kindle this week

Cadell Blackstock (CB): Thanks for making the time to sit down with me and talk about the book, Crash.

Crash Cole (Crash): Where’s your publicity assistant?

CB: Who?

Crash: You know, the hot redhead with the legs that go on forever, the fiery demon that guards the gates of heaven—

CB: Does anyone actually fall for that crap?

Crash: Woah, guess who didn’t get laid last night!

CB: Too busy writing about you, unfortunately. You ought to know all about sacrifice (Crash gives him a strange look, but Cadell doesn’t notice) seeing as you’re an actor, slave to your craft…

Crash: (looking around him) Where are we? What is this place? Why’s everything so— so white?

CB: Can we focus, Crash—

Crash: You choose some really weird places to hang out. Seriously mate, this place gives me the creeps. There’s absolutely nothing here. Is this the inside of your brain?

CB: —just for five minutes?

Crash: Make it two and I’m all yours. Well, obviously not literally. Not my type mate, sorry, no offence.

CB: (rolls his eyes) You’re much more trouble in the flesh than on paper.

Crash: That’s your fault, not mine. Shouldn’t have made me such a favourite with the ladies.

CB: Yeah, what is that all about?

Crash: Totals, mate, totals. 1003 in Britain alone. Well, it may have been 1004. Or maybe 1005. Last few days are a bit hazy, mate, if I’m honest.

CB: That’s the population of a small town…

Crash: So? I’ve got a reputation to keep up. Get it?

CB: Tell me you’re not really this crass all the time.

Crash: Of course not. It’s just the way people perceive me to be. Deep down I’m a serious, thoughtful guy.

CB: (looks at him in disbelief)

Crash: I am! (pauses, studying his fingernails) Actually I am, you know that. Last few days things have been different, you know? (lowers his voice) I can feel things are about to change. What have you got in store for me, mate? You about to turn my world upside down?

CB: Maybe.

Crash: Am I gonna like it?

CB: You hate being bored.

Crash: I am bored. You’re right. I’m tired of making the TV show, I’m tired of reading my name in the effing tabloids. Time to do something different, time to move on. Maybe I’ll just jump on my bike and take off somewhere, far away from all this meaningless crap. You know what, you’re no better than the rest of the media. You just create what you want to see, what you think people want to read. You don’t pay enough attention to the details, you just take the photo and tell people what you think  they want to hear. It’s just a myth, I’m just an effing myth. I am the hollow man…

CB: TS Eliot?

Crash: I’m not as stupid as I look. Don’t be fooled by the leather jacket and the bike helmet, and the trail of lacy knickers I leave in my wake.

CB: Crash?

Crash doesn’t answer.

CB: Is everything OK?

Crash: (gets up and wanders around listlessly) Seriously, what is this place? Where have you brought me?

CB: (hesitates) This wasn’t entirely my doing, Crash.

Crash: I haven’t read Eliot for years. You’re a writer, what’s that poem about?

CB: When did you first start reading poetry?

Crash: Years ago, when I was still a motorbike courier, before all this— stuff— before Crash and the girls— well, not before some of the girls, I admit, but most of them. Come on, what is that poem about, the “hollow men” one?

CB: Some people say it’s about death and dying, about the way the souls cross over—

Crash: That’s what this place reminds me of, heaven—

CB: About the way the dead see the living—

Crash: (looking around nervously) Where’s that noise coming from? D’you hear it?

CB: You said you feel like a hollow man, like a myth, a construction of other people’s imaginations.

Crash: Are we about to go into a press conference, mate, or some sort of DVD signing? Is that what I can hear, a crowd, paparazzi, journos drunk on free coffee?

CB: Crash?

Crash: (dragging his attention back to Cadell, he moves to the edge of his seat, rubbing his chest with the palm of his hand) What? Oh, the myth thing. Well, yeah, obviously, I mean, it’s like everyone thinks they own a piece of me, you know, they think they know me, they think they have the right to judge me, just because I’m in the public eye all the time. How would they like it if I popped up in their bedroom and gave them a bit of feedback? (looks around) What is that noise?

CB: (glances at his watch) The five minutes are nearly up. Look, Crash, this is important. Would you rather write it yourself, write your own story in your own words?

Crash: What did you say? I can’t hear you too well— What did you say, mate?

To find out what happened next, buy Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’ by Cadell Blackstock for Kindle from Amazon UK or Amazon US.