By a coincidence that is actually no such thing, but accidents of calendar-changing and record-keeping, on April 23rd this year we mark the 400th anniversary of the deaths of two giants of literature, William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. It is both wonderful and somehow generous of the Royal Shakespeare Company to have marked the occasion by commissioning a new adaptation of Don Quixote by James Fenton.
The production, directed by Angus Jackson, designed by Robert Innes Hopkins with puppetry (and co-direction) by Toby Olié, is superb, as befits a cast led by David Threlfall and Rufus Hound. Threlfall is the very picture of the would-be knight; indeed, he looks like the illustrations to Cervantes’ novel I remember from my childhood – intensely staring eyes, gaunt, with blade-sharp cheekbones, lean and angular, with narrow hands whose long, bony fingers remind one of dozens of piètas. Rufus Hound is the ideal Sancho Panza, padded to the point of being nearly spherical, but capable of a startling tumble from Dapple, his puppet ass, into a deep pit. In general, the casting is very strong, with plenty of seemingly impromptu clowning –Gemma Goggin’s Mrs Panza is outstanding in this regard.
It’s a strength of the production that it doesn’t disdain the obvious. It’s almost impossible now to have puppet horses without referring to Warhorse, and Toby Olié’s Rosinante and Dapple make it a virtue by paying a kind of homage to the earlier examples. In the same vein, most of the audience will be reminded of Monty Python sketches (here we have the Knights’ puppet chargers who say “neigh”), and the production embraces the points of contact without making too much of them. The puppetry is not overdone – when the contrivances appear it’s always a treat: a flock of sheep, a sack of enraged cats, a hungry falcon and, almost best, a two-man pussycat of a lion. Kudos to the “creatives” (as the programme styles them), from the movement director to the “comedy director.” The only thing I’d change is Grant Olding’s out-of-character, sub-Kurt Weill music for one of the numbers.
But, of course, it’s the quality of the adaptation that makes this staging a classic in its own right. It’s so classy it’s as though the Monty Python scripts had been written by Robert Lowell. The comedy is there, but so is the lyricism (there are more than a dozen songs and poems). James Fenton is a good friend of mine, but no disclaimer is really necessary, as his achievements (as poet, gardener and garden writer, war correspondent, and critic) are all well known and justly celebrated. The great thing about his version of Don Quixote is that it plays so well – the dialogues are conversational, the longer speeches easy to follow, the verse natural and the – few – puns funny. When the characters wax rhetorical, it’s always fitting, and the irony of the knight’s overblown words is gentle and affectionate. (The translation of the Spanish text by Charles Jarvis is generously credited on the title page of the Faber & Faber edition of the Fenton text, which, incidentally, can be read straight through independently and with great pleasure.)
The second, more challenging and playful half of the play, when the knight errant has become a legend in his own lifetime, and so can be viciously teased by the duke and duchess, is beautifully done. Fenton changes gears noiselessly and smoothly for the deathbed scene, where the old man’s essential nobility gleams through the words, which manage to be touching without a hint of the maudlin.
It probably counts as faint praise to say this far outshines my memories of The Man from La Mancha. This RSC production easily betters the 1960s musical; yet it is more ambitious in its literary way, with the added virtue of being totally entertaining. As an adaptation of a classic text, this is right up there with Nicholas Nickleby – though Don Quixote has greater commercial possibilities. It needs only to lose about 15 minutes in the first half to transfer to the West End (and Broadway), where I can imagine it will play for a very long time indeed.