“We are all gathering dust here, none of us have much to do”
It’s a tough job being an actor junkie. Even whilst trying to cut down on the amount of theatre I see, I find it immensely hard to turn down the opportunity to watch long-admired actors in the flesh, hence dragging myself to see A Christmas Carol for Jim Broadbent, overriding my Pinter-averse instincts to book for Timothy Spall in The Caretaker, and heading to Stratford-upon-Avon to see David Threlfall return to the RSC, over 35 years since he was last there.
Drawing him back is a new adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote by poet James Fenton (pulling the focus a bit in marking the 400th anniversary of someone else’s death) that is filled with mayhem and music and madness and melancholy. Determined to translate the world of chivalry of which he has read so much, Don Quixote sets out on his own quest to become a wandering knight, carrying out acts of derring-do with his hapless squire but finding that fictional romantic ideal increasingly hard to come by.
Angus Jackson’s production runs riot in a way I haven’t seen the RSC do too often and it allows for a brilliant sense of informality to rule the evening. Jackson’s direction allows for the ensemble to have many a richly scene-stealing moment and with a fair amount of ad-libbing going on (it must be hard to control things flying from the gods to the stage…) and audience interaction peppering the scenes (beware, you could end up babysitting a seriously freaky-looking baby!), there’s a real freedom to much of this work.
This approach suits Rufus Hound’s Sancho Panza down to the ground, bantering away with the audience, and with Gemma Goggin’s fierce wife at hand too, her roving eye looking for the perfect childminder, the stalls have never felt so dangerously fun. I enjoyed seeing Eleanor Wyld onstage again, starring in a standout moment of real pathos. But it is Threlfall’s performance that holds the attention, very much putting the tragi- in tragi-comic as the tale winds to a pretty devastating conclusion, that achingly moving voice hushed in long-awaited recognition of true nobility.
Robert Innes Hopkins’ design is full of real invention, Grant Olding’s songs suggest the Spanish locating without being overemphatic, even the puppetry (Toby Olié) didn’t disturb me too much… From windmills to wooden horses (no comment on the actors actually playing horses! Natey Jones is excellent here), flying bread to fabulous monks, Don Quixote has it all. And in enticing Threlfall back onto the stage, celebrates Cervantes’ masterpiece with a magnificent piece of acting from an actor I’d definitely travel to see again.