It’s a performance of tremendous skill, sensitive and haunting. He makes every word a jewel that sparkles, attracts attention, adds to the overall splendour of his achievement. He never makes the mistake of overdoing any moment, look or action. His eyes are pools of quintessential humanity; they refresh and revive you as you gaze upon his work.
Sentences sing. Movement is limited to what is necessary to convey mood, temperament and empathy. Stillness is embraced as an effective means of communicating emotion. Humour is ever-present, but comes not from any source other than the text, the character, the scene. There are no add-ons or in-jokes, no attempt to get a laugh at all costs.
Despite the absurdity of many situations, of many of the theories he propounds or his analysis of the events and people he encounters on his journies, he never is anything other than completely serious, completely engaged, completely compelling. His triumphs are dizzying; his defeats, sobering and poignant. Candid and complete, this is a performance for the history books.
It’s happening in Stratford Upon Avon, in the Swan Theatre, now; It’s RSC gold.
And it’s not a play penned by Shakespeare.
This is James Fenton’s new play, The Ingenious Gentleman: Don Quixote, an adaptation of Miguel De Cervantes’ famous novel. It’s having its premiere in a production directed by Angus Jackson. The glorious central performance from David Threlfall, as Don Quixote, is unmissable.
This is not to say that the production is perfect. It’s not. It is at least forty minutes too long, with some sections of both Acts merely repeating ideas and thoughts. Yes, this has the effect of ensuring that you see and experience Don Quixote’s quest as an endurance test, but it is unnecessary. Threlfall imbues every second with such depth, approaches each scene with such integrity, that repetition is counter-productive.
Fenton and Grant Olding provide original songs and music for the production and these are really terrific. Some of them are not particularly well sung here, but it matters not: the sense of the music is to convey the sense of the Cervantes world, and that is achieved with a resounding clarity. The music propels and sharpens some of the action, highlighting pain and plans.
It is interesting to see this story with music when you also know Man Of La Mancha, and, indeed, seeing this production does serve to highlight just how clever and appropriate the score and lyrics of that musical are. It is impossible not to compare the way similar scenes are treated in the two, vastly different, works, but the truth is each succeeds. Knowing Man Of La Mancha helps you understand the very different achievement here.
The Swan Theatre can be an unforgiving place when the temperature outside the theatre is higher than 13 degrees. Windowless, basically airless, and lacking air conditioning or even movement of air, it can suffocate easily. So dreary productions can be unendurable there. Jackson ensures the cast keep interest bubbling continuously, and there is comedy gold, splendid puppetry and audience involvement to keep interest levels excitedly high.
But it’s just too long, and when the narrative swings away from Don Quixote himself, the energy drops and audience attention levels are challenged. Some sensible pruning would eradicate that problem, entirely, and make this a hum-dinger.
Jackson uses skilled puppetry to enhance the imaginative aspects of the play. This inspired decision has two results: some magical opportunities for comedy; but, more importantly, a chance for the audience to see things through Don Quixote’s eyes. Is that just two actors and some costume/prop accoutrements? Or is it a lion bouncing forwards, a low roar gaining in power?
Throughout, Toby Olié’s puppetry is magical. Squawking, screaming infants are easily and swiftly evoked, as are donkeys, horses, a hungry bird of prey, marauding cats, the wonderful lion and, most hilariously, a flock of sheep inadvertently slaughtered by the would-be Knight Errant. Many of the difficulties of staging Cervantes’ epic story are overcome entirely by the master stroke of using puppetry.
Robert Innes Hopkins’s design, vivid and surprising, makes the most of the Swan space. The famous ’tilting at windmills’ incident is smartly conceived – the windmills are created before the audience’s eyes. When Don Quixote attacks, he is caught up in the motion of the sails, flung into the air and then crashes to the ground. It is both funny and shocking at once.
Hopkins uses flats and furniture sparingly, preferring to allow the imagination of the audience to work harder than usual. But key things are there: the cage for the lion, the deathbed, the library.
The concept for the steeds of the two main characters is inspired – a sort of bridge between prop and puppet. They are wooden structures, pulled by actors, so they have a distinct corporeal presence, but, depending on which actor is working them, can express different moods. Again, inspired. Johanna Town makes excellent use of lights, and, especially in the scenes where Don Quixote’s relatives burn his library treasures and the final moments of the play, produces splendid moods by deft alteration of lighting states.
With the odd exception, across the board there are universally good performances from the ensemble, many of whom can sing and dance (splendid movement from Lucy Cullingford) and do duty as puppeteers as well as play a multitude of characters. Everyone uses the House style here, making for a uniformity of approach and a clarity of message. Scenes change constantly and characters are left behind and replaced, but, always, everything is easy to follow.
There is excellent work from the self-obsessed and cruel members of Don Quixote’s household: Rosa Robson (Neice), Amy Rockson (Housekeeper) and Richard Leeming (Boy). Each establishes their character cleanly and comprehensively from the off, making both the horror of the book-burning sequence more pervasive and the solemnity and guilt of the deathbed scene profound and poignant.
Ruth Everett and Theo Fraser Steele have terrific fun as the deceitful and vicious Duchess and Duke who humiliate Don Quixote with a pack of feral cats. They give delicious performances which would not be out of him in Alice In Wonderland. Joshua McCord has a shaky start as Carrasco but comes into his own in the final quarter of the play.
There are superb cameos from Will Bliss as the Travelling Barber, Bathsheba Piepe as Altisidora and John Cummings as Lionkeeper and Innkeeper and Nicholas Lumley and Timothy Speyer do good work throughout as the Priest and the Barber respectively.
But the entire show is anchored and propelled by Threlfall’s deeply committed, intense and acutely observed turn as the titular character. He looks perfect – a kind of Catweazle figure, with a beard that suggests he takes fashion points from Lily Munster, he appears wise and crazed simultaneously. Dignity pervades everything he does.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, indignity pervades almost everything Rufus Hound does as Sancho Panchez. At the play’s climax, when the central duo argue and it seems their association will end, not a word Hound says is discernible. Not one. The most powerful conversation between the two characters is tossed away. Nothing Threlfall can do can save the scene.
Sure, Hound handles the initial farcical business well, and he is adept at interacting with the audience as a kind of 17th Century stand-up comedian, raising many laughs, but he is incapable of playing a classical character with any depth. Why Hound is cast in roles which require acting rather than personality is a mystery more impenetrable than why Don Quixote mistakes windmills for beastly opponents, Giants.
Still, Threlfall and the rest of the company are good enough to carry the production regardless of Hound’s inadequacies. It’s clear that what could easily be cut here are the solo passages involving Hound’s Panchez – the real interest here lies with Threlfall’s Don Quixote. Of course, put an actor in the role of Panchez who approaches the playing as Threlfall does, from the inside, from the text, from the heart, and it might have been different.
Threlfall is remarkable in the final scene, a death rattle evident in his breathing as the romantic, adventurous champion of justice succumbs to the embrace of Death. It’s as stark and touching a moment as anything Shakespeare wrote.
The Ingenious Gentleman: Don Quixote is a timely play, reminding us, in clever and insightful ways, that the existing order can always be improved, that authority needs proper checks and that things may not always be as they first appear. Honesty, fairness and loyalty are the treasured attributes, no matter who you are or what life has dealt you. Tilting at Windmills is better than burning books and perpetuating the status quo.