BWW Review: DON QUIXOTE, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon
After a lifetime of reading books on chivalry, Don Quixote decides to embark on a quest of his own. Taking up a lance and sword, he sets out to become a wandering knight, defending the helpless and vanquishing the wicked. Hopelessly unprepared and increasingly losing his grip on reality, he travels across Spain accompanied by his faithful and equally ill-suited squire. With each calamitous adventure they experience, the romantic ideal of Quixote's books seems further away than ever.
James Fenton's adaptation of Cervantes' Don Quixote is packed with beautiful rustic charm. It treads the fine line between a musical and a play with music, threaded throughout with gorgeous Anglo-Spanish songs and flawless six part harmonies.
There is a sense of joyous theatricality from beginning to end, from the peasants dancing their tangos to the wonderful puppets designed and directed by Tony Olié. The hilarious baby puppets, operated and voiced by three members of the cast, are a tremendous highlight, earning their own unexpected round of applause.
There is always a unique sense of the unknown and a degree of experimentation at a preview; I have always enjoyed the idea that the actors are learning about and discovering their production alongside the audience. The cast may not have expected the audience to interact as much as they did - joining in with a fight scene and happily throwing bread rolls back at the actors - but this camaraderie was excellent and I hope these elements are retained throughout the run.
However, as this was a preview, there were a couple of technical problems. Most notably, there were some issues with sound as the company experimented with the use of microphones, and not all actors were audible from the upper gallery.
Robert Innes Hopkin's designs are smart and minimal, glowing in a gorgeous honeyed wood. I love this basic, flexible style, which felt almost as though Don Quixote himself had designed it. Simple and clever, these designs are also imaginative and fanciful; a tree (held by an actor) bends forward to proffer an acorn, a grand statue unfurls from the floor, and the two donkeys are created from scaffolding and operated by inter-changing actors wearing a hat with ears. The famous windmill scene is particularly marvellous; these huge structures are very obviously constructed by the cast, like magicians preparing a magic trick.
The ensemble cast sweep the audience up in an enormous sense of fun, full of cheeky smiles and giving us the thumbs up. Angus Johnson's direction is full of unexpected humour, including a Benedictine monk conducting his brethren and a very interactive game, as an actor attempted to throw props from the gallery into Sancho Panza's bag.
David Threlfall brings Don Quixote de la Mancha to life with flair and panache. He retains an aura of mystique by keeping the audience guessing as to whether he is mad or not, switching between rambling, mutter speech and exaggerated knightly poses (as though copied from a painting), to intelligent monologues delivered with great conviction and powerful flashing eyes staring down his opponents.
Rufus Hound is absolutely endearing and hilarious as squire Sancho Panza, breaking the tension within minutes by bodging a line and acknowledging that we are watching a second preview! He interacts with the audience, breaking the fourth wall, asking us questions and even rifling through one lady's handbag.
The RSC's Don Quixote is, on the surface, a quirky, silly comedy about a mad knight, but at its heart it poses a much more serious question. Although Don Quixote is fighting windmills and killing sheep, he is more energised and fulfilled by these mishaps than by his safe life at home. He tells Sancho Panza that he doesn't know how to have adventures, and that he has no imagination. Perhaps this hints that Quixote knows that he isn't a real knight errant and that, although many consider him mad, it is better to be bold, chase your dreams and look a little silly in the process, rather than leading a sheltered life of regret.
Photo credit: Helen Maybank