The Theatreguide.London Review
Garrick Theatre Winter 2018-2019
The very model of what a stage adaptation of a classic should be, this RSC production is respectful to the original while imaginatively re-inventing it in vital and colourful theatrical terms.
James Fenton's text and song lyrics, Grant Olding's music and Angus Jackson's direction make for an irresistible romp through Cervantes that has just the right blend of reverence and cheeky irreverence.
And if, at just under three hours, it runs a little longer than might be ideal – well, so does the book. And if it loses energy toward the end – well, so does the book. Small prices to pay for all the fun that comes before.
Playwright, director and performers establish the tone from the very start, with Rufus Hound's Sancho Panza coming on like Buttons in a Christmas Panto, chatting and interacting with the audience, inviting responses, and generally getting everyone in a happy mood.
Hound smoothly moves in and out of character thereafter, giving the whole show an informal ad-lib feel, even if that is a carefully constructed illusion. (Actually, a false fire alarm on Press Night put Hound's improv skills to the test, and he moved everything past the interruption and back to the script seamlessly.)
By getting caught up in the fantasy he first introduced us to from the outside, Hound's Sancho serves as a guide and model to the audience's own double vision and multilayered appreciation of the story.
For many David Threlfall is best known for his unapologetic wastrel in the TV series Shameless; for those of another generation he will always be Smike in the RSC's classic Nicholas Nickleby. In either case, his long-delayed return to the RSC and the West End is an occasion for celebration.
Threlfall easily finds all the comedy and all the pathos in the deluded self-appointed knight. But he also uncovers surprising layers of depth in occasional hints that the Don is at least partly in on the joke.
His Quixote consciously and deliberately chooses his illusions, and if he then gets caught up in them, he retains enough control to make up the rules as he goes along, shaping the fantasy to his own ends.
Like Threlfall's Don, text and production retain a careful balance between immersion and distance, straight playing and sending-up. Quixote's horse is a puppet-human hybrid out of Equus by way of War Horse, with a touch of Monty Python's Holy Grail, and there are other puppets with attitude sprinkled around.
But the songs, largely with a traditional Spanish feel (though with an occasional flash of Gilbert and Sullivan), are all straight and either celebratory or sentimental, and the style can support such not-really-digressions as a masque reminding us that death comes to all.
Quixote tilts at windmills and declares war on an army of innocent sheep, but he also successfully stands up to a bully and stares down a lion. And the duke and duchess who make him their pampered guest for the sole purpose of laughing at him come out looking far the worse by comparison.
Early in their adventure together Quixote tells the hesitant Sancho 'You are hobbled by the prosaic part of your nature.' Give yourself over to this production's high spirits and theatrical inventiveness, and free your own nature's capacity for enjoyment.
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