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REVIEW: Don Quixote at RSC

“STRATFORD, it’s not all about Shakespeare”, is the often-trumpeted mantra beloved by many locals bored of the Bard — especially in this much-hyped 400th commemorative year since his death. Rejoice, then, that with this production of Don Quixote even the RSC acknowledge it’s not all about old Bill.

Spanish novelist Miquel De Cervantes wrote the epic, genre-defining 1,000-page novel Don Quixote from 1605 to 1615 (while Shakespeare was busy with King Lear, The Tempest, and ten or so other plays), and both writers are recorded as dying on 23rd April, 1616. Double 400 top!

Wouldn’t it be awful if all that awesome numerological magicalness was followed by a less than spectacular Don Quixote?

Happily, Herald arts can report that, along with puddles of others in the audience, we were up on our feet at the play’s curtain call: a standing-ovation-worthy-gem of a production that brings forth tears of laughter and profundity.

So what makes it so very marvellous? Let us count the ways (edited down from 400):

1) The story adapted by James Fenton: It’s a hoot! Bewitched by popular fiction of the day, telling stories of chivalrous knights, Don Quixote, an old nobleman from a sleepy Spanish village, sets off on his worthy steed, Rocinante, to commit acts of heroic derring-do. A fantasist, he continually misinterprets what’s going on and invariably ends up getting a battering. Local farmer Sancho Panza mounts his ass, Dapple, and joins in the daftness as Quixote’s squire. He too ends up royally battered.

Nevermind Jack Kerouac or Hunter S Thompson, this is the original madcap road trip. Fenton’s sublimely clever script makes it modern and knowing, but with his tremendous and authentic-sounding lyricism, he also keeps it respectful of the original and its glorious language and humour.

2) Rufus Hound as Sancho Panza: Hound perfectly captures Cervantes’ ‘meta fiction’, where the writer/character shows awareness he is partaking in a story. He’s the tubby friend of the audience — stopping the action to have a chat with us, asking how it’s going — his skills as a presenter and stand-up comedian making this a comfortable and hilarious diversion.

3) Director and designer dudes: You might call Robert Innes Hopkins’ design minimalist — the stage is largely bare throughout — but the fantastic costumes (Don Quixote’s clanky armadillo armour is particularly beguiling) and props (from giant windmills winched up from the floor to bread rolls thrown by baying mobs) are perfectly conceived to bolster director Angus Jackson’s rich, heavily-imagistic vision. Told in episodic fashion, and often featuring all of the large cast, each scene bristles with creative drive, and moves with absolute aplomb from the frothy fun of Don Quixote’s first half japes to the more analytical second half where our hero tussles with his darkest foe: reality.

4) Puppets, prop ponies and ensemble people: Ratty cats, babies, sheep, a lion… all are brought to life by Toby Olié’s stupendous comic puppets. Our heroes’ mounts are more wooden wheel barrows than noble steeds, which adds nicely to the pathos of their knight-errant quest. These are pulled along by various ensemble members with an entertaining variety of attitudes and facial expressions. The cast never look like they are not having the best fun of their lives: donkey-eared hats off to them.

5) David Threlfall as Don Quixote: Last, but most important, perhaps, is Threlfall’s utterly mesmerizing take on the daft Don (or is he so daft after all?). He’s an aged but graceful, stupendously whiskered chap. He reminded me of Saruman, the baddie wizard from Lord of the Rings, but as if he’s got drunk and joined a Sealed Knot re-enactment.

His performance is both funny and incredibly moving, and, in brilliant contrast to Hound’s nudge-nudge knowingness, there’s never a moment when you don’t totally believe he is Quixote.

Go and see it and discover your own reasons to love it.

Don Quixote runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 21st May.

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