No play can be seen entirely in isolation. Even if you have never been to the theatre before, you bring with you a whole fardel of expectations; maybe admiration for one of the actors; possibly the lure of a review or two; or even knowledge of the plot. Thus, what you see on stage can easily reflect your own interests and circumstances; or contain within it faded images and rippled memories dredged from deep within you.
Thus it was with James Fenton’s rollicking adaptation of The Ingenious Gentleman, Don Quixote, at the Swan, last night. I knew I was in for a great deal of merriment – although the performance was captioned, I still find it helps to read the script in advance (and this one is blindingly clever, and hits every funny bone in your body – many, many times…) – but what I hadn’t expected was quite so much pathos. And – although I admit I may have been the only one in the audience who saw such things… – it was the sharply-etched parallels with King Lear that so moved me.
Admittedly, David Threlfall is the consummate actor – utterly at home in the warm wood of the Swan (beautifully lit by Johanna Town) – and, can, simply, with that famous probing stare (now surrounded by the most wondrous facial hair I think I have ever witnessed), bring the house down. But he also has the ability – simply with a subtle slowing of pace, a lowering of voice, a slumping of shoulders – to penetrate those darker places you may not wish revealed. I will not give away the ending – not even the play’s text presaged its devastation… – but it is easily as affecting as that of Lear.
Yet this was not the only parallel. At one point, he begins to divest himself of all his clothes…
Now, you haven’t yet seen me mad. So, before you go, I’d like you to see me – well, I insist that you see me – cavorting naked…
…and, yes, it provokes mirth of the deepest kind; but, as “the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance” huddles in his shirt and “spider’s web” stockings, rocking gently against the far brick wall, there is also pity. His madness is as self-aware as Lear’s: and, therefore, his moments of lucidity as painful as a lance to the soul. That he is so loved by his extended, dysfunctional family, only heaps on the resonances.
Fenton’s writing, although mainly in prose, demonstrates his wonderful facility as a poet. There is some beautiful wordplay – and some tremendous songs: covering all the colours of the emotional rainbow (and some of the gathering storm-clouds, to boot) – and some ingenious use of language. That it made me want to dig out the source novel – a work which I abhorred as a teenager: despite being instructed repeatedly that this was one of the greatest works of fiction of all time – is testament to its powers. It is astutely structured into two acts, and thirty-two scenes; and the sixteen songs (set to suitably Spanish-flavoured music by Grant Olding) flow through them as naturally as “this white path disappearing among the hills”.
Essentially, it is an entertaining, comic run-through of Don Quixote’s greatest hits (directed by Angus Jackson – he of the breathtaking Oppenheimer – with ‘comedy director’ Cal McCrystal). The books; the chivalry; the windmills; the sheep; the rusty armour; the poor ‘steed’ Rosinante… – and, of course, poor sidekick Sancho Panza: Rufus Hound, with a fat-suit… and impeccable timing! There are also puppets (by Toby Olié) – from horses, through children, a kestrel, to a lion – but, again, these are so tightly integrated (and quite stunning) that they only add to the overall effect. Oh, and the scenery? Simply breathtaking in its apparent unpretentiousness. (Designer Robert Innes Hopkins should be given some sort of medal.)
Needless to say, the company – apart from the two leads, identical to that of the phenomenon that is Doctor Faustus – are consistently impressive: although, here again, there are similarities and correspondences to be had (principally achieved through canny casting). It would be unfair to highlight any particular performance, therefore – except to congratulate Bathsheba Piepe, who stood-in as Don Quixote’s Niece, as well as playing Altisidora. (Understudies always amaze me – and their transparency and versatility at the RSC is a minor miracle.)
Of course I laughed! Don’t get me wrong: I chuckled; I guffawed; I sniggered; and, at one point – after a shocked, shared gasp – joined in with a collective shriek of startled glee! It’s just that it’s not quite the easy theatre it appears to be on the surface – and is therefore so much better than I could have imagined. The three hours went by all-too speedily (always a good measure); but the fact that I left with glistening cheeks, I think, speaks volumes. On until 21 May 2016, I will be hunting out another ticket as soon as I can!