Writer: Miguel de Cervantes
Adaptor: James Fenton
Director: Angus Jackson
Reviewer: Fergus Morgan
In taking Miguel de Cervantes’ rambling 900-page novel, fully titled The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote Of La Mancha, and turning it into a workable stage play only three hours long, James Fenton has achieved something quite remarkable. Don Quixote is no longer an intimidating brick of a book but an amusing, accessible and poignant comedy. Angus Jackson’s production for the RSC is a triumph of creative design and astute direction, featuring a magnetic tragi-comic performance from David Threlfall as the eponymous knight-errant.
In early 17th Century Spain, chivalry and valour are all but dead. Bemoaning their demise, Threlfall’s ageing Alonso Quixano conjures up delusions of knightly grandeur, rechristening himself Don Quixote de la Mancha and tottering out into the world to seek adventure. Accompanied by his humble, anxious squire Sancho Panza (Rufus Hound), Don Quixote rolls from one hapless attempt to win glory to the next. He slaughters a herd of sheep, releases a chain gang of convicts and confuses windmills for giants, all in the name of his beloved – and entirely fictitious – Dulcinea del Toboso.
The story’s episodic nature somewhat inhibits the natural development of character, but Threlfall supplies a terrific lead nonetheless. Don Quixote is a fascinating character, rich in high-minded notions but tinged with an unbearable pathos. As Threlfall staggers around the stage in a clanking suit of rusty armour, waving his arms flamboyantly and blustering his way from set-piece to set-piece, one is never sure whether he has truly gone senile with age or whether his pretensions are merely a mask to hide his crushing disillusionment. It is also a gloriously funny performance; Threlfall’s juxtaposition of doddering old age and resolute determination is a winning cocktail.
Hound, beefed up in a fatsuit, is a reliable Sancho Panza. He huffs and puffs in an energetic performance, constantly afraid of Gemma Goggin’s Teresa Panza – his wife – and always willing to ad-lib to the audience. He does well with his many comic lines, as one would expect from a comedian, but his more emotional moments lack conviction. Elsewhere, Nicholas Lumley provides an enjoyably unholy priest, Ruth Everett an amusingly haughty duchess, and the rest of the ensemble take turns to imitate a succession of hilariously weary horses.
Robert Innes Hopkins’ design is a delight. The bare stage of the Swan Theatre hides a plethora of pop-up scenery, from giant rotating windmills to enormous cut-out statues of Don Quixote himself. All has a charming wooden aesthetic and a sense of real construction and craftsmanship. Toby Olié’s menagerie of animal puppets – a device that can be so often overused – provides moments of comedy throughout but never robs the actors of the audience’s attention.
Fenton’s writing combines a flowery, 17th Century voice with a terser, distinctly 21st Century one. It is a juxtaposition that rarely feels awkward and provides frequent humour. There is a subtlety to his adaptation as well; an elegant comment on our perceptions of valour and society’s tendency to cynically sneer at displays of principle murmurs throughout. This is brought to a head in an unexpectedly moving finale, which has the audience in rapturous silence.
Fenton, Jackson, Innes Hopkins et al – not forgetting Grant Olding and his spaghetti western score – have crafted a production that manages to turn a sprawling 17th Century novel into a funny, fascinating and unexpectedly relevant play that, thanks in part to Threlfall’s terrific central performance. It doesn’t feel anything like its 180 minutes.
Runs until 22 November 2016 | Image: Helen Maybanks