The age of chivalry is come again following the West End transfer of theatre
windmill giant the RSC’s ‘Don Quixote’.
The show first ran at the company’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2016, marking the 400th anniversary of the death of author Miguel de Cervantes. Adapted for the stage by James Fenton and directed by Angus Jackson, the show’s long-deserved transfer lights up the stage of London’s Garrick Theatre, and the faces of its delighted audiences.
Don Quixote has read books. A lot of books. One might even go so far as to say that, borrowing a phrase from ‘Little Women’ author Louisa May Alcott, “[He] is too fond of books, and it has turned [his] brain”.
Inspired by the books he has read on the ‘golden age of chivalry’, Don Quixote, our would-be knight-errant, sets off on a quest, to rescue dragons and fight damsels. (Or something like that). With his faithful friend and squire Sancho Panza by his side, together the two seek adventure, meet challenges, and once or twice, are driven apart. However, Don Quixote is forever spurred on by his burning desire to see things, not as they are, but as they could be.
Windmills become giants and a flock of sheep becomes an army camouflaged in a cloud of dust, in this gloriously uplifting production that captures the ethos and majesty of an age gone by, in a heartfelt exploration of the human scope of possibility, and a joyous celebration of the power and wonder of imagination.
The production’s minimalist brickwork backdrop can be likened to a canvas onto which Don Quixote’s fantasies is projected – and impressive set pieces lowered onto the stage stand tall and proud in the foreground, against the bleakness of the bland reality behind. Several puppets are used for the animals – a falcon, sheep, and a lion – but are comically imbued with character, personified by the actors that control them, in keeping with the fantastical elements of this story. The cast as a whole are fantastic, giving particularly emphatic, comic performances, and the catchy songs are played live by a band of musicians. Highlights include a hilarious bread roll fight – that begins amongst the characters, but soon pits cast against audience – a masked dance by acrobats and players, a ride on a Windmill arm, and of course, the many cases of audience interaction.
After an initial song, hearkening back to a time of Arthurian legend, Rufus Hound’s Sancho Panza sets the scene, instructing audience members to forget the weather outside, to forget even what day it is, and encourages us to get lost in Medieval Spain. This is not before the odd Brexit joke – which he claims only 48% of the audience seemed to enjoy – and a healthy dig at deciding upon something before understanding the full ramifications (in reference to a premature enjoyment of their play, of course…). After these references to modern politics, however, we are reminded that, all outside will be left at the door of the theatre. For the duration of this show, where we return once more to an age gone by, reality fades away, in fact, is pushed to the background, leaving behind this world in which fantasy, idealism, dreams, and imagination, reign.
Rufus Hound brilliantly demonstrates his skill as a comic, an actor, and a singer, boasting strong vocals in his musical numbers. Hound and Threlfall have a very noteworthy chemistry on stage, evident in their reaction when the two are torn apart by outside forces. As the two navigate life’s adventures together, their friendship is strengthened, to the point where they are not simply knight and squire, but friends. Such chemistry, such friendship, clearly transcends off stage, as is noticeable when the two actors take each other’s arms during the bows, and embrace as they walk off stage.
David Threlfall triumphs as eponymous character Don Quixote. In appearance, perhaps, he may not be what springs to mind when we think of a knight – his ill-fitting armour hangs loosely from his body, his green socks are full of holes, his shirt is stained and untucked, and atop his head sits the golden basin of a barber. However, in heart, he embodies everything that a knight should be – standing for honour, for valour, and for chivalry, displaying an unshakeable courage (albeit sometimes beyond the bounds of what is rational). What Threlfall does is masterfully present us with this rather layered character, that is able to evoke in his audience a range of emotion – from sympathy, to pity, perhaps even to envy, that we too had this ability to see the world as he does. Unlike the other characters in the play, we cannot laugh at Don Quixote. This endearing man, with a limitless imagination is one that is limited by elements beyond his control, these extraneous variables – his age, the frailty of his ageing body, even the limited imaginations of those around him – that seek to remind him that the world is not really, and cannot be, as he would see it.
There is a moment in the play when Don Quixote learns that his exploits have been penned down, and have actually become something of a bestseller. Although initially thrilled, when he learns that both his highs AND lows have been penned, he is less pleased, declaring that the author might have had the good grace to omit his lower moments. However, it is these low moments that humanises this character to an even greater degree. He may not be like knights of old, Herculean in strength, but ironically, this makes him infinitely more real than they are. He is susceptible, not only to successes, victories and triumphs, but to shortcomings, failings, and human weaknesses.
Don Quixote’s readiness to see, and often exaggerate to a point beyond the limits of reality, the good in things, often displays itself in shows of gullible naivety, and this allows him to be taken advantage of, sometimes resulting in intense moment of pathos that vividly juxtaposed the general fast-paced comedy and lightheartedness of the play. On occasion, his blindness to reality causes pain to himself and to others, sometimes of the farmyard variety. Despite his rather deluded fantasies, he continues to be driven by his desire, his ability, to live his idealised fantasy – and so firm, so strong is his conviction, so powerful his ability to have that which he believes made flesh, so that not only can he see it, but his vision is projected onto the stage so that we too are able to see it, is rather admirable. Rather than a dishonesty, this is an innocent, almost childish exuberance to exaggerate, in order to make things, not simply other than what they are, but better than they are.
Despite his age and physical ability, Don Quixote is determined to have adventures, and he believes. He believes in the beauty of his dreams, and strives to make those dreams a reality. He made Sancho believe, he made himself believe, and lastly, and perhaps most importantly, he made the audience believe.
There are many things Don Quixote comes up against – laughter, sheep, a lion, giants – but it seems that the biggest enemy he faces is reality. He is waging a war against reality but, armed with his imagination, in the end, I believe he triumphs, for “imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality” (Lewis Carroll). And Don Quixote has imagination to spare.
Don Quixote is called mad. His rather vivid imagination, and insistence upon the supposed reality of his imagination, referred to as a madness. As something needing to be cured. He is laughed at, his hopes, dreams and visions, laughed at. His books, seen as the source of his madness, are destroyed. If this be madness, so be it. Because, for the few hours we are watching this production, we too are mad. For those glorious few hours, anything is possible. Reality is left outside the theatre auditorium, and we become trapped in this same bubble of fantasy, of make-believe, and of escapism. Theatre often presents us with an idealised, musical version of life, immersing us in the joyful imagination of writer, director, cast and creatives. For the duration of this production, we too are afflicted, or more appropriately, blessed, with this ‘madness’ of seeing a vision of the world as it could be. We join our lovable protagonists Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on their quest for adventure, we root for them, we dare to dream alongside them.
As a result, we find ourselves asking whether Don Quixote has actually got the right idea, and whether those we refer to as sane, those realists, are in fact mad.
For of course, in this troubled world, “when life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness
— and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”