Saturday, 5 March 2016

Theatre review: Don Quixote

The RSC are of course marking the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare's death on the 23rd of April 1616*, but they're also acknowledging that Miguel de Cervantes died on the same date¥, with his epic comic novel Don Quixote getting a new stage adaptation by James Fenton. Angus Jackson directs David Threlfall as the titular impoverished lord who's spent his life in his library, absorbed in tales of Mediaeval knights-errant. As he gets old and senile he starts to believe himself one of them, and sets off on a mission to have adventures and bring the age of chivalry back to Spain. He promises the local layabout Sancho Panza (Rufus Hound) an island of his own to rule if he'll be his loyal squire.

Cervantes' novel was published in two parts, and in a meta touch worthy of The Knight of the Burning Pestle, the second volume acknowledges the publication of the first.


So after his first bout of silly adventures, Don Quixote sets off after the interval into a world that now knows who he is. What he doesn't realise is that they see him as a joke, and from fanboy-turned-rival Samson Carrasco (Joshua McCord) to a Duchess (Ruth Everett) who lets him ride a flying mechanical horse (but it only works if he's blindfolded) and her Duke (Theo Fraser Steele) who gives Sancho the island he'd been promised, they all want to make fun of the madmen.


The book and play's structure therefore nicely subverts the first part's nasty feel of making fun of a mentally ill old man, by making the people who do so the villains of the second. But the overall intention of Fenton's play remains to have a lot of silly fun, and Jackson's production isn't 100% successful in this. Threlfall is as likeably bonkers as you'd hope in the title role but I remain not entirely convinced by Rufus Hound; so having his Sancho establish the comic mood with what is essentially a warm-up routine early on didn't work on me as much as clearly intended. The episodic nature of the story, with Fenton trying to get as many of the famous comic scenes in as possible, also means each setpiece feels over before it's really begun, while although Grant Olding's original songs are enjoyable, they do interrupt the show's energy.


But the production's real saving grace comes in the ensemble, who've been encouraged to milk every possible moment of comedy and, as actors will if you tell them to ham it up, grasp the opportunity with both hands. Silent actors in the background regularly provide the highlights and everyone jumps into it with enthusiasm, but special mentions have to go to Natey Jones' sassy horse, Richard Leeming's various animals that forget they're not meant to be able to speak, and Tom McCall's general, shameless upstaging of anyone within half a mile of him. There's some nice gags in Robert Innes Hopkins' designs as well, and an overall enthusiasm for the piece, but where the main story doesn't always get the laughs it's aiming for, the supporting cast save the day.

Don Quixote by James Fenton, based on the novel by Miguel de Cervantes, is booking in repertory until the 21st of May at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes including interval.

*I mean, I guess they must be marking it; they're casting Antony Sher in a play, which is how they celebrate any major milestone, and also how they celebrate any year with numbers in it

¥though not actually the same day, Spain and England still observing different calendars at the time

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