2nd April, 2016, matinee
James Fenton has taken on an enormous task: turning Miguel de Cervantes’ 1605 novel Don Quixote, which is roughly 800 pages long, into a piece for the stage. The result is highly theatrical and very funny, whilst also conveying the story’s relevance. Angus Jackson’s production is charming, inventive, gloriously funny, physically dynamic, and musically imaginative.
Don Quixote (David Threlfall) has read all the books on chivalry and laments the loss of it in the real world. So he sets out on a quest to become a chivalrous knight, on which he slays dragons, wrestles giants and rescues damsels in distress. It’s a fairy tale, and like with all good fairy tales has a moral which is resonant today. Here is a man who is disenfranchised from and disenchanted with the real world, seeking to better it and endeavouring for it to live up to the sometimes heady world of literature. He is joined by the ill-suited companion Sancho Panza. Put upon by his wife and a small clang of crying children, he seems otherwise contented with his lot (the fat suit adorned by Rufus Hound perhaps conveys that). He knows where the sun rises in the winter and where it sets on the longest day, but, alas, not much of what happens between. Threlfall and Hound make a great double act off together on a journey of largely unsuccessful self-discovery and misguided gallantry. Their aim may be blinded but it is ambitious and seems a fitting story to tell in a theatre used to telling such epic stories.
As they set off on their wooden horses, Don Quixote banging his head on a beam as soon as he sets off, Jackson’s production and Robert Innes Hopkins’ rustic design ensure that the calamitous journey is full of slapstick comedy and visual delights. Don Quixote attacks windmills thinking they’re giants, kills sheep thinking they’re soldiers, and clumsily attacks a barber and uses his bowl as a hat. The performances are remarkably physical and comical, highlights being Don Quixote being taken up by a windmill wing and Sachno Panza hilariously and breathtakingly falling down a hole. Threlfall’s Don Quixote is like the calm at the centre of his own storm, causing chaos around him everywhere he goes. Hound, with his experience as a stand up and in One Man, Two Guvnors helping him, keeps the whole thing together with moments of audience interaction.
The company’s commitment and energy shines through, and it is no mean feat that some members of the cast are also in Doctor Faustus and The Alchemist this season. Furthermore, largely due to the episodic structure, they do well to make their portrayals of smaller characters memorable as well as act as stage hands and impressively operate Toby Olié’s puppets. Additionally, the play’s mythic quality with talks of giants that we don’t see, and a hugely demanding central performance of a rebellious character reminded me of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem.
A mobile phone went off at the start of the final scene spoiling much of the pathos intended. Rufus Hound stopped the show, the house lights went up, and front of house came in until an audience member eventually found the phone and left the auditorium. I’m not in support for the rather prescriptive sounding idea of a theatre charter but I understand that the cast felt it necessary to stop the show. However, full kudos goes to Richard Leeming who, in character, asked if it was an ice cream van (the ringtone did sound like one – indeed some may have thought it was part of the scene). Leeming’s quip was completely in keeping with the jovial and relaxed tone of the show.
The play continued, showing a rather frail looking and defeated Don Quixote in bed. But Sancho Panza encourages him to stand up and take a bow before he dies. As the lights went down on Threlfall standing triumphantly on his bed as it lowered into the sub-stage, the production reminds us that the road to happiness is often happiness itself. Even though Don Quixote may feel he never got to be like the chivalrous knight he read about in his books, he may have got closer to his goal than he realises. Angus Jackson’s production stays optimistic until the end and makes for an entertaining piece of theatre which is not merely diverting but is also a reflection on living up to the magnitude of stories.
Don Quixote plays at the Swan Theatre, RSC, until 21st May, 2016.