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  • Eddie Hewitt

Don Quixote

Royal Shakespeare Company at the Garrick Theatre, London

Saturday 26th January 2019


Cervantes is sometimes accorded a similar status to Shakespeare. Spain’s finest and most famous writer, I have read. They died on the same day, or thereabouts. And certainly he is a pre-eminent figure in the history of his main genre, the novel. But how can one major work, albeit 900 pages long, plus a few minor novels, compare with the Bard’s 37½ major plays plus 150 sonnets and associated poetry? Let’s just say there is room for both, and Cervantes is more than welcome at the RSC.

Playing away at the Garrick Theatre, the RSC entertained us richly, going deeper into pantomime mode than I have ever seen before. High jinks straying into the realm of farce, banter with the audience, and bread rolls being thrown into the auditorium by the cast and back again onto the stage by the audience. Leading the fun and games was Sancho Panza (Rufus Hound). After a pre-show ramble with Brexit jokes and teeing up something for later on (you’ll know when it comes), Sancho made way, pursued by his wife who was, he assured us, a very good woman, and the show proper commenced.

Sancho Panza (Rufus Hound) with Teresa Panza (Natasha Magigi)

(photo: RSC, Manuel Harlan)

Since my first reading of the book, long, long ago, I’d never realised how much fun there was to be had in the story. I’m still not convinced Cervantes put it all in, but the RSC have found it, as they so cleverly do, and created a musical comedy special. A change from Shakespeare’s high-minded intellectual discourses, sure, though Shakespeare does funny, too. Actually not really. Not so much.

So, here’s how Don Quixote stands out. We see him as a tragic hero who bases his heroism on a fantasy. A man who is not really heroic at all. One who doesn’t achieve anything magnificent. Not even greatness. One who doesn’t even commit to some divine cause or act of vengeance. Relentless ambition, perhaps, but he bases this on a foolish premise and is laughed at all along.

Don Quixote (David Threlfall) recalling olden times

(photo: RSC, Manuel Harlan)

Doddery but spurred on by his dreams, Quixote sets out to make something of his dying years. He creates an adventure for himself, intending to revive the days of heraldic chivalry in Spain. And so he becomes the knight Don Quixote de la Mancha, devoted to his lady Dulcinea del Toboso. Later on, he sees her as a peasant woman who reeks of garlic, but convinces himself that she has been transformed by an evil wizard.

Rosinante (his horse) and Dapple (Sancho’s donkey) bring a lot to the party too. The actors take it in turns to pull along the knights and his squire on their wooden contraptions. There are comic echoes here of the far more serious but equally ridiculous, human-drawn chariot seen in Tamburlaine at The Swan last autumn.

Knight and Squire: going nowhere fast?

(photo: RSC, Manuel Harlan)

Next, there's the armour, including a barber’s bowl, claimed by Don Quixote in a skirmish, which becomes his new helmet. And then come the battles, the jousting, the drubbings. The tilting at windmills - the man of La Mancha thinks they are giants. And then the slaughtering of a flock of sheep, appearing in the guise of armies kicking up dust. There is great fun here with the fake blood. I bang on about the RSC and their blood, or lack of it. Here, the actors pull out giant red cloths from inside the wooden sheep. Wonderful!

Horse, donkey, sheep. And then a lion is wheeled out in a cage, and let out, prompting further jollity. Homage to War Horse and the Lion King. This is fantastic! How did I miss all this fun in the book? As well as all the pathos.

Time to take on the giants

(photo: RSC, Manuel Harlan)

And then the meta-story comes in. Don Quixote discovers a man holding a book written about his adventures, his life. This feels like an early version of The Truman Show. The hero believes he is living his own life on his own terms, and yet he is simultaneously acting out a story that has already sold thousands of copies and is entertaining readers in Barcelona, Portugal and even ANTWERP! Cue the mass cheers from the audience, requested by Sancho at the start of the performance.

Getting to grips with the Knight's Tale: Samson Carrasco (Joshua McCord)

with Don Quixote's niece (Rosa Robson) Photo: RSC, Manuel Harlan

Sadly, ironically, Don Quixote is deprived of his own books when his family brick up his library. They fear his tales of chivalry will only lead to more humiliation and injury. This follows a cunning act of rescue on the part of the townspeople, after a series of defeats and beatings. A clever and kindly ruse by the author. But, once a knight, always a knight. On return to adequate health, Don Quixote insists on starting up his quest all over again.

Back in the saddle, the great Knight and Sancho are welcomed into the court of a mischievous Duke and Duchess, eager to have fun at the expense of their guests. These guests are abused, ridiculed; easily persuaded they are flying high into the sky on a magical horse that never actually leaves the ground. Sancho gets his island but is denied food. The pair are derided for mourning at the pretend funeral of Altisidora.

The Knight in action, protecting a damsel in distress (Eleanor Wyld)

The Duchess (Ruth Everett), with squawking parrot

(photos: RSC, Manuel Harlan)

But, I am troubled. All of this is a celebration of a man descending into senility as he approaches the end of his life. Cervantes seems to be enjoying the madness, though he softens in approach to his hero when it comes to the death scene. Here, he allows a partial return to reality and reveals some tenderness and compassion. The Knight is no more. Merely a man, surrounded by his family and friends.

There is just time for one final moment of mock-heroical magic at the Garrick. A Frank Spencer like elevation to follow a series of shambolic events, as Don Quixote is lifted high above the stage on a rope, and somehow not left dangling there. A fitting demise for one who made others laugh by deluding himself. Thankfully, without ever really realising why people were laughing at him.

© Eddie Hewitt 2019


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