The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 13th April, 2016
Not only did Shakespeare pop his clogs 400 years ago this year but so did Cervantes, author of the original novel on which this play – and modern fiction! – is based. To commemorate the Spaniard’s deathiversary the RSC has mounted this fiery steed of a production, a new adaptation by James Fenton.
Elderly and infirm, Don Quixote decides to put in to practice what has been his lifetime’s study, namely the chivalric code of the knights of old. It’s never too late to reinvent yourself, it appears. Off he goes, from adventure to adventure, but when reality clashes with his ideals, we are amused but he is undaunted; his code of conduct will not allow him to complain or be deterred by setbacks. And so the will of the old man gradually begins to impose itself on the world – in particular his upholstered squire, Sancho Panza. The story becomes a lesson in how to handle those with dementia, meeting them in their misperceptions – up to a point.
It is riotously funny and performed with theatrical brio, you have no option but to enjoy it from the off. As Sancho Panza, Rufus Hound warms us up with a bit of ad lib banter – this is not so much audience participation as audience involvement. Willingly, we follow Sancho and his knight on their journey, buying into the artifice of the conventions in play and relishing the inventiveness of the enterprise as well as the gusto of the performers. Hound is practically perfect for this.
As the unsinkable Quixote, David Threlfall gives a Lear-worthy portrayal, in a physically demanding role – he gets beaten repeatedly, snatched up into the air by the sails of a windmill, and generally runs around in an apparently tireless fashion. Above all though – and I don’t just mean when he’s on the windmill – he engages us with the old man’s world-view. How romantic and exciting the mundane becomes through his eyes, when two flocks of sheep become opposing armies and when windmills become marauding giants.
The rest of the cast dash around in multiple roles. Richard Leeming makes an impression as a dozy boy servant (and later as Quixote’s horse); Nicholas Lumley delights as the Priest appropriating mucky literature; Gabriel Fleary gives a hilarious turn as the Biscayan, strutting and fretting before a fight; Natey Jones’s sowgelder, Timothy Speyer and Will Bliss as barbers… Everyone gets their turn. I could append the cast list and have done with it.
There are songs throughout, plenty of Spanish guitar, to add flavour. The period comes across through the costumes – there is very little in the way of set apart from what the cast brings on and takes off. Inventive use is made of trapdoors throughout. Johanna Town’s lighting gives us Spanish sunshine as well as evoking the changing locations and moods of this episodic narrative. Angus Jackson’s direction keeps the action flowing at speed, with more reflective moments during which his two leading men are nothing short of a joy to behold.
The icing on this delightful cake comes in the form of babies, sheep, and a lion, from puppet-master Toby Olie and Laura Cubitt. Irresistible.
There are moments when a Pythonesque sensibility comes to the fore, and we venture into Holy Grail territory but then you have to remember how influential Cervantes is. The windmill has turned full circle.
An unadulterated pleasure from start to finish, this new Don Quixote is the must-see of the RSC’s current season.