Christmas of discontent

Oh, God. Christmas. All we need is love, right?

Absolutely. Because, to paraphrase the disturbing 60s cartoon, love is…. an Elizabethan ruff necklace by Katherine Wardropper. It’s one of Steve Schapiro’s £400 limited edition Godfather Family Albums. It’s Stephen Fry reading every word of Harry Potter, offering125 hours of creamy aural massage for a paltry £350. This, gentlemen, is most assuredly what love is. I don’t want a kiss. Give me the Lanvin pearls.

Let’s be honest. This season is always stuffed with sickeningly insincere and self-conscious sentiment, and Christmas 2009 will go down in history as one of the worst. Now that our budget only stretches to a Woolworths mini screwdriver set, we have decided that, in compensation, we will reclaim it as a holiday of humility and hugs. A homemade, hemp-scented Nativity woven from cuddles and chutney. A warm, wet Yuletide of love gushing forth from our bruised and bankrupted souls so that we may be baptised in the healing juice of long-neglected empathy.

Oh, dry yourself off. Get on the bus to Stratford, and go and see Don John. Kneehigh Theatre, in association with the RSC, has transplanted Mozart’s opera about the hell-bound philanderer to 1978, with spectacular and unexpectedly moving results. It has all you need for Christmas – sex, violence, disco and dodgy knitwear – and, at its core, the old message about evil always getting its comeuppance, and the persecuted of the world finding shelter and redemption through compassion and care.

It isn’t as trite as it sounds. Choosing to set her play in that past winter of discontent, with a Labour government struggling to keep the economy under control and a populace labouring under strikes and shortages, director Emma Rice gives the story a sharply relevant edge. Her show vividly evokes a society of refugees and failures yearning for salvation in a disillusioned world, but refuses to lapse into simplistic moralising, maintaining a sense of joyful and often ridiculous humour that undermines easy self-pity or blame. The characters, a collection of self-sacrificing Polish gypsies, bumbling British idiots and uptight upper class gals, are on the whole professional victims, complicit in perpetuating the disempowering clichés that keep them oppressed. And when Don John (played by the achingly  louche Gisli Örn Gardarsson) storms in, raping, murdering and pillaging in razor-cheekboned, smoky-eyed, empty-souled style, he is playing out the hedonistic oblivion that, in troubled times, we all secretly crave.

Our paradoxical drives towards both acquisition and meaningful connection, self-centred pleasure and community, are exhilaratingly staged. Some elements of the show are too self-consciously crowd-pleasing, and the impressionistic last scene only serves to dilute the impact of Don John’s spectacular descent to hell. But the overall effect is a rousing success. The production leaves you both drunk on the seedy glamour of self-destruction, and deeply aware that, after the heady dance of debauchery has burnt itself out, ‘all that is left is care’.

So: Christmas morality combined with vicarious villainy, in a room full of natty costumes, great tunes and sparkly things, all for thirty quid. This is why a trip to the theatre is the best gift of all.  A retreat as well as a renewal, a comfort as well a challenge, a good play provides a timely catharsis that is beyond the reach of either a Stephen Webster platinum and diamond pendant, or a jolly game of Scrabble with your beloved old dad.

And of course, the irony is that Don John’s real message tells us that yes, love is all we need. OK, OK, I give in. Give me your hand-whittled doorstop, and a hug, if you must. But I still want those pearls.