Oh, to live in a fantasy world where windmills become giants and a rampaging flock of sheep turn into a mighty army to be vanquished. I think we’d all like to escape from the reality of life.
It helps if you’re a little bit unhinged and then anything is possible. The wild and unpredictable adventures of Spanish, self-appointed, knight errant, Don Quixote, may be known to you but it’s more likely that Miguel De Cervantes tragi-comedy has one of those names that you’ve heard of but know nothing about.
Python’s Terry Gilliam has spent nearly 20 years trying to put the story on screen. He should come to Stratford-upon-Avon and see what director Angus Jackson has achieved for the Royal Shakespeare Company with James Fenton’s adaptation of Don Quixote.
David Threlfall, hidden under a spectacular salt and pepper beard, is the eponymous Don Quixote De La Mancha.
It’s a tremendous turn filled, in equal measures, with Dali-esque surrealism and deep poignancy – you can’t help be moved, almost to tears, by its closing scenes.
There’s more than a touch of Pythonesque madness to this episodic comedy that amuses from start to finish.
It’s a very physical performance by Threlfall and far removed from his layabout character of Frank Gallagher in TV’s Shameless, whose only activity is breeding kids.
Here the actor is regularly beaten, enjoys sword fights and jousting and, at one point, is hoisted high into the air above the Swan Theatre stage, to fend off a giant windmill. I hope he has good medical insurance.
At his side is a very well-padded Rufus Hound as squire and reality-checker, Sancho Panza, who flees his harridan of a wife to be at the side of his ailing, elderly master.
No stranger to physical comedy himself, Hound works up a sweat tearing around the stage and auditorium, falling into holes, and being pelted with rocks. Who says acting is easy?
We first meet Panza when he ambles on the stage, hands in pockets, a rotund shape like a beach ball, almost as wide as he is high.
It’s press night. “You all right?” he asks the audience. “If you’re sitting next to anyone with a notebook keep whispering: ‘This is wonderful, six stars at least!'”. Sorry Rufus, but five is my maximum, and they’re well deserved.
Don Quixote is the most romantic of stories about a man’s yearning to follow his dreams and return his native Spain to an age of gallantry, where knights save damsels in distress, fight off dragons and slay enemies.
Instead his journeys unearth man’s inhumanity and cruelty to others.
Our hero may be a few books short of a library but you can’t help love the old boy. He’s read everything about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and their stories have fired his imagination.
“We are all gathering dust here, none of us have much to do,” admits Panza. Don Quixote, a picture of foolish eccentricity, appears wearing armour and riding a “horse”.
He’s off to do battle, live the life of a knight, and in the process, restore some meaning in his existence.
Angus Jackson’s imagination runs riot and is as creative as his main character. A giant windmill rises from the floor and, later, a super-sized cut-out of our knight of old is hoisted aloft.
His cast interact with the audience, and look like they’re having as much fun on stage as we are watching the performance.
One poor guy in the front row comes in for a tongue lashing from Panza’s wife (brilliantly played by Gemma Coggin) and ends up baby-sitting the kids.
As always at the RSC the productions are a hugely collaborative affair with a superb team offering up their expertise.
Grant Olding’s atmospheric musical numbers pepper the show (though Threlfall really isn’t a singer) and Tobie Olié (War Horse) and Laura Cubitt’s menagerie of puppets, from a flock of sheep to a ferocious lion and Panza’s trio of cute babies, are wonderfully evocative.
Quixote and Panza ride through the countryside astride a pair of ingenious steeds with company members taking turns to play the horses.
Watching their nuanced performances is a lot of fun. Richard Leeming’s cowardly nag, who refuses to ride into a joust, tries to escape into the audience rather than fight.
He’s in sharp contrast to Natey Jones’ posturing, sassy, diva who oozes attitude, his eyes rolling and hips thrust at an angle.
Mad, whimsical and full of charm, this Don Quixote tilts at windmills and wins our hearts.
Don Quixote plays in the Swan Theatre until May 21.
Mad, whimsical and full of charm, tthe Royal Shakespeare Company’s Don Quixote tilts at windmills and wins our hearts.