Writer: Miguel de Cervantes
Adaptor: James Fenton
Director: Angus Jackson
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Such a triumph in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 2016, the RSC’s production of Don Quixote now comes to the West End, albeit in a version that strips off 20 minutes from the original running time. Cervantes’ novel is over 1,000 pages long, but poet James Fenton’s adaptation manages to preserve the humour in the mock-heroics of Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza.
Much of the play’s success is down to the performances of David Threlfall, who is Don Quixote, and Rufus Hound, who plays Sancho Panza. Together they travel through Spain in search of adventure, and to restore the lost art of chivalry that Don Quixote has read about in the books in his library. There is something of King Lear in Threlfall’s performance. With his long grey hair and his long grey beard we are never quite sure if Don Quixote is really mad, or whether, when he sees giants when others see windmills, he is just making the most of opportunities that punctuate an otherwise dreary road. Threlfall is so sympathetic that it’s all too easy to believe in the illusions too.
Comedian Hound is perfect as Don Quixote’s squire, and his wry humour is the right counterbalance to the seriousness of his master, though Sancho Panza is just as naive, believing that he will be rewarded with an island at the end of their quest. Often addressing the audience, Hound brings a pantomime spirit to Don Quixote, and, while some of his lines appear to be ‘scripted’ ad-libs, he excelled when the pyrotechnics set off a fire alarm on press night. Hound and Threlfall are a formidable double-act.
To be an authentic knight-errant, Don Quixote needs a damsel to rescue, and much of his adventures with Sancho Panza, both on wooden horses drawn by the chorus, is a hunt to find the Dulcinea of El Toboso. As his escapades become famous to the nobility of Spain, there are those who want to mock his air of chivalry, and here the play, like the book, changes tone a little and the slapstick comedy becomes bittersweet.
Director Angus Jackson ensures that his Don Quixote is very funny, and sometimes, with bun fights, and the cast appearing all over the theatre, almost anarchic. The first half is a hoot. However, the pace does slow in the second half, and, although there is a nagging sense of FOMO, it’s probably for the best that this production has been shortened. One of the things that does slow down proceedings are the songs penned by Fenton and Grant Olding, which hamper the action, adding pathos when none is needed.
It’s Don Quixote’s exploits we want to see, and these shine here. The set pieces come alive with the help of puppets and the large supporting cast. Richard Leeming is excellent in his role of village idiot, while Ruth Everett as the Duchess has the audience in stiches in the way she glides around the stage. But all the cast work hard here, whether they are horses chewing on hay or mothers throwing their babies into the stalls. The band plays above them bringing some flamenco here and there, and, of course, the sound of a mournful Spanish trumpet.
If you are looking for a Christmas show that isn’t a traditional pantomime, Don Quixote may be the right show for you. It’s silly without ever being too silly, and, despite the jokes and the tomfoolery, is surprisingly moving. In our brutal world, perhaps we should all get on horses to restore civility to the land.
Runs until 2February 2019 | Image: Manuel Harlan