by Miguel de Cervantes
Adapted by James Fenton
Songs by James Fenton and Grant Olding
Directed by Angus Jackson
Designer Robert Innes Hopkins
Royal Shakespeare Company
The Swan Theatre, Straford-upon-Avon
Friday 26th January 2016
Don Quixote – David Threfall
Sancho Panza – Rufus Hound
Teresa Panza, Shepherd – Gemma Goggin
Altisodora – Bathsheba Piepe
Niece, Guard – Rosa Robson
Housekeeper, Emerencia – Amy Rockson
Boy, Monk- Richard Leeming
Duchess, Galley slave – Ruth Everett
Duke, Gines de Pasomonte – Theo Fraser Steele
Marcela, Peasant Woman – Eleanor Wyld
Barber, Monk, Shepherd – Timothy Speyer
Priest, Devil – Nicholas Lumley
Samson Carrassco – Joshua McCord
Innkeeper, Lion Tamer- John Cummins
Sowgelder, Shepherd, Galley Slave, Acrobat, Soldier- Natey Jones
Biscayan, Galley Slave, Savage – Gabriel Fleary
Shepherd, Acrobat, Guard, Physician – Tom McCall
Travelling Barber, Steward- Will Bliss
1616 to 2016 – four hundred years since Shakespeare’s death and four hundred years since Cervantes’ death. Shakespeare was aware of Cervantes, and Cardenio (adapted from Don Quixote) in the 2011 RSC production filled in gaps from the early 17th century Cervantes translation.
This was the second night. You’re not supposed to review previews, and the RSC sells its preview tickets at less than half price. Many other theatres sell previews at full price, and in the case of the Benedict Cumberbatch Hamlet that went on for weeks before press night. The RSC are always quick to get past the previews. My excuse for reviewing is that we travel 150 miles, and we book plays in pairs, an evening and a matinee the next day, and combinations of two were just not falling at times we could come. Our main aim was to see Midsummer Night’s Dream early, but after press night. This is why Don Quixote had to come so early in the run.
So, by the time you see it, I suspect it will have been tweaked. The biggest tweak is that it was announced as 2 hours 30 minutes, plus a 15 minute interval. When you include the 15 minute interval this Friday night ran for three hours five minutes, or about 20 minutes in excess of plans. As the first half was 1 hour 25 minutes, the over-run is in part two, which is normally shorter. It’s very common for RSC plays to run 8 to 10 minutes over, because they get a lot of curtain calls, and the interval often stretches by five minutes (better ladies loos would help). But not 20 minutes. For the type of play, I think 2 hours 50 minutes – however good it is – is just too long.
David Threfall (Don Quixote), Rufus Hound as Sancho Panza
There was one minor technical problem with the windmill, which meant a stage manager coming on to point out the problem. That was two minutes long at most and was a bonus because it left Rufus Hound improvising with the audience which is his forte, and it was so funny that I’d keep it in. There is a lot of knowing artifice already, so it would be fine. Throughout the ensemble are changing scenes, moving stuff, taking it in turns to be the horse or the donkey (and the various horses and donkeys have character), operating puppet babies, sheep, and a lion and a parrot; and it was all done with a wink and a nod and a tumble and wave, all of which created a marvellous ensemble mood. I’ll pick out one. There’s a scene where they need to eat … Quixote and Panza. A woman brings on a tree branch with acorns and she holds it over them, and eventually Quixote eats one. The woman holding the tree branch was pretending to bathe in the theatrical spotlight while just being assigned to holding the branch. A lot of the scene changing action was like that. The whole cast excelled in it, and I’d guess some ended up with ten or a dozen roles, or even more.
There is an intrinsic problem with Don Quixote, and that is that the novel is extremely long indeed, with a very large number of separate funny, but only barely related episodes. I’m sure every incident in the story here was felt to be “too good to cut” and I’d feel the same, but nevertheless, they probably need to lose two complete “incidents.” I don’t think normal tightening up will do the job – and none of it felt loose or leisurely anyway. So many of the incidents are glorious … the puppet lion in a cage is unforgettable, as are the mass of sheep or Sancha’s wife with three puppet babies (none of these scenes are cuttable). The cats puppets following the sheep were too much of the same sort of idea though. And poor Don Quixote got heavily drubbed with sticks (too?) many times. Actually, my conclusion would be to keep as much of the action as possible … and … sorry … cut three, or even four songs entirely. One of the problems they have here is that the uncut text is on sale in the RSC shop at a very reasonable £5. So can they omit any of it?
The question is that it seems unsure whether it’s a play or a musical. It bills itself as a “play with songs.” There was too much singing for a play, and the songs were too spread out for a musical. It may be early, but I assume the cast are invisibly mic’d for solo songs and David Threfall’s early speech and first two songs were way quieter than the cast around him. That may be the assumed mic, or lack of mic, or simply lack of singing strength, but he was also given a lot of “Lee Marvin’s” …i.e. semi-talking, semi-sung narrative stuff. The “Lee Marvin” comes from the film Paint Your Wagon, where Lee Marvin, a non-singer if ever there was one, had to sing the title, Wanderin’ Star, and ended up semi-speaking it. It was a number one hit, as was Telly Savalas intoning during his run as the Greek NYC detective Kojak with David Gate’s “If.” At one point, Natey Jones came on singing right after David Threfall, and it was at three times the power and volume. While the whole cast numbers stood out at the beginning and end of acts, most of the other songs were not memorable, though the Spanish flavoured band sounded excellent. Flamenco clapping en masse always sounds good, but that needs a little sharpening too. I spend much of my life listening to albums for the first time, and pride myself on being quick to find a hook, or melody. If it were a “musical” rather than “a play with songs” it would have an overture. That was the idea of an overture, to introduce the themes and melodies and rhythms so that when a song arrives with content in its lyrics, the audience ae not hearing it totally cold. It badly needed an overture. Songs should accentuate a mood or emotion in the story, and lyrics should reinforce this. You shouldn’t use them to carry part of the main narrative on their own.
I have to say we both thought the songs by far the weakest aspect. The strong points are comedy direction, all the action scenes and the actors. Add set design and props (both totally brilliant) and costumes. Stagecraft, with the puppetry, is at an exceptional level.
David Threfall as Don Quixote
There are clearly two stars of the production, David Threfall as Don Quixote, and Rufus Hound as Sancho Panza. Everyone else has multiple parts, so these two are the focus, the continuing story, the centre of every scene. Both gave fantastic performances. Rufus Hound blossoms on being granted space to do his own thing, and is a natural comedian, physically accentuated by being put in a fat suit. Threfall, unrecognizable in his long beard has madness, comedy, major physical action, falling off his wooden horse several times (much harder than it sounds, especially clad in rusty armour), being hoisted in the air, but also poignancy and a dying scene that wouldn’t have been out of place in a major tragedy. He even projects bravery when he stares down the lion. He looks, sounds and feels the ultimate Don Quixote of the imagination. He looks like the etchings, the paintings. You wouldn’t expect Don Quixote to be a great singer either.
Don Quixote and horse, Sancho Panza and donkey, with windmill
There are so many moments, but the first time Sancho Panza hoists Don Quixote onto his horse was hilariously funny. The device of the horses made of frames, the horses being pulled by an actor with ears and the donkey being pushed by an actor with tail, works so well. Natey Jones as the Knight of the Silver Moon’s flouncing and prancing “horse” was one of many notable background moments. The lance charges worked. The flying horse, where the Duke and Duchess fool Quixote and Panza into imagining they are flying, is a further great device. Add in the huge windmill and the Quixote statue.
Just look at the list of roles. They only list parts with lines I suspect, because everyone is doing everything. Costume changes are rapid and throughout the costumes are stunning. The company of actors with masques, the galley slaves and their guards, the Duchess and the Duke, the two knight roles. Ruth Everett’s duchess in huge skirt had such excellent facial expressions, I wanted to transport her to Alice in Wonderland. Richard Leeming’s “Boy” so perfectly looked the part of the peasant lad … he would be the ultimate Private Pike were they ever to revive Dad’s Army on TV (or do a sequel to the film). Every time he appeared he did something subtle and funny. This cast will be reappearing in the 2016 season in Dr Faustus and in The Alchemist and I look forward to both.
Ratings? You can’t rate a preview really. But centrally you have five star acting, comedy direction, stagecraft, costume and set. However, the play text needs serious editing, with cuts, not merely trimming here and there. The songs are definitely weak. But can they slice into the published text?
Remember, this all refers to a 2 hour 50 minute performance. When you see it, and you really should, check your running time against this preview running time. My guess is they’ll be closer to the advertised 2 hours 30 minutes. I think it will work better. On the other hand, any action that has been cut was worth seeing too!
Many of the cast also appear in Doctor Faustus, RSC 2016, playing in repertory with this.