As the name might suggest, the Jackinabox theatre company deals in a kind of fun, innovative theatre with a bit of a surprise twist. Mixing elements of dance and physical theatre with narrative story telling, they have brought two very different shows to the Fringe this year, showcasing both their range and taste for very varied points of inspiration. 99.9 Degrees is a performance born out of a single concept – the idea of that state just before things reach boiling point, that unbearable tension point before everything erupts. Working around this, they have constructed an interweaving tale of memory and experience, alternating between naturalistic depiction and emotive choreography.
Don Juan is a very different kettle of fish, though it incorporates the same mix of movement and dialogue. Reimagining the classic tale of seduction and debauchery for a modern audience, the story starts not from its chronological beginning, but works backwards from the Lothario’s condemnation to hell, replaying all his many seductions and dalliances before our eyes. It brings its protagonist from a place of self-congratulatory triumph to one of morbid remorse, as the consequences of his actions unfold before his eyes and he sees what has befallen the girls as result of his carefree attitude. The journey for him is one from innocence to harsh understanding, as it was for all the many women he won over, once deeming it so pure and innocuous.
Jon Askew, who runs the company with Hayley Thompson, and who also takes the lead for Don Juan, reflects that attitudes have changed towards serial womanisers. “They’re not a legend anymore,” he says. “You kind of look down on them.” This mapping of modern morals onto a very recognisable and well known story, which in itself has almost acquired legend status, makes for a very thought-provoking piece of theatre. “The girls aren’t just faces in corsets,” explains Thompson, who founded the company two years ago. “They’re really interesting characters.”
The significance of humanising Don Juan’s amatory prey, however, is not just to redeem them – it’s also to reflect our empathy back to the protagonist, who for all his faults is shown as being flawed, perhaps even a little naïve in his own way; certainly not the wanton philandering villain that he has often been painted as. It’s Thompson who comes to his defence. In their version she plays the main love interest, the one who stands apart from all the rest, who in the end, in her own innocent way, becomes his damnation. “Even though you know what he’s doing is bad,” she reasons, “he’s also very lovable and at the end when he’s facing his fate, you do look at both sides and think ‘does he deserve this’?” Certainly the culmination of the drama is very touching – though the play begins, despite its infernal setting, in a comedic way, by the end they move us to a point of real heartstring-tugging poignancy.
For preparation for his role, Askew read Casanova’s diaries. In it he found a portrait not of a heartless user, but an idealistic romantic who suffered more from an inability to think things through to their consequences rather than a man of damaged morals. “He romanticised so much,” explains Askew. “For him it’s all about loving everyone and treating everyone as special…he talks about being virtuous and not being the fool.” The point of a production like this, aiming to retain archaic language and evoke a sense of the original setting whilst putting a more modern savvy spin on the implicit morals, is to highlight both the consequences for the girls of that story at the time and also to show how times have changed. “It’s difficult now for someone to romanticize that kind of behaviour,” says Askew. “You wouldn’t buy it.”
Both Askew and Thompson read Moliere’s play and then developed it in ensemble style with their cast – the ensemble method of working is also the driving force for 99.9 Degrees. The company has a mix of dance and dramatic training – together this forms their compound technique that embodies the company’s signature trait, a kind of dramatic storytelling that devotes itself to physicality without branding itself exclusively as physical theatre. In Don Juan this manifests itself as intermittent dances choreographed around dialogue, which nicely represent the intricate game of seduction and illuminate it as just that: a game. Although the studio in which they are working is small, and a larger stage would perhaps have given them the chance to exhibit this unique element of their work more, Don Juan and 99.9 Degrees are both intriguing and arresting productions, and show a company which, while still in its infancy, is developing very much its own particular voice.
The company is currently based in York and will be touring after the Fringe – but then both Askew and Thompson will be relocating to London. Although they intend for the company to stay intact and speak enthusiastically of the possibility of a residency in York, they both acknowledge that for any young and upcoming theatre group, being in London is, to a greater or lesser degree, an imperative. Their ties to York remain strong though, and there is no intention to disband the company. “It’s a great place to develop theatre,” says Thompson emphatically. The two shows of this Fringe stand as testament to that. After the move to London, it will be interesting to see what the capital has to offer such an innovative company.
Image credit: Jackinabox Productions