The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha is a novel which, published as its two parts were in 1605 and 1615, deconstructs itself four and a half centuries before literary critics created a vocabulary for its games; it plays not only with the tension between the would-be knight's idealistic delusions and coarse reality, but expands to question the reader's own perceptions and to juggle several levels of reality and fiction. To capture this cussed playfulness, a stage adaptation must either address the audience directly or dramatise the debate. Adaptor David Johnston goes for the latter option in ¡El Quijote!, creating two readers/listeners/spectators of opposing views (playwright Ben Jonson used the same choric device at around the time Cervantes was writing his novel) and also bringing on to the stage the Moorish "author" whose work Cervantes pretends he is only translating. The chronicle of the Don and Sancho Panza is periodically interrupted by this trio's debates and explanations – eventually, even other characters join in.
This might be fine if the primary narrative itself were given any sense of theatrical impetus. Unfortunately – and even allowing for the fact that I saw this production in preview – these three hours drag unmercifully. Director Maria Momblant Ribas seems to have instructed her international cast to play it not just straight at almost all times, but funereally; eventually even Mehmet Ergen's Sancho, hitherto a redoubt of indomitable frankness, begins to crumble. The picaresque, episodic character of the novel being further broken up by Johnston's interpretative digressions, Ribas needs to inject energy into the narrative to retain an audience's attention, so that we might care about what the trio of exegetes are debating. She singularly fails to realise this. It is all very well to have Patrick Kealey play Don Quixote as largely impassive in his airy-fairyness – he is, after all, the Knight of the Mournful Countenance – but Kealey's particular flavour of Irish understatement submerges the humour too far, disconnecting the Don not just from the reality around him but from us as an audience. Fatally, Ribas seems to assume our attention rather than negotiating for it. Her programme note dedicates the production to recently deceased physical-theatre maestro Jacques Lecoq, but the show itself demonstrates little or no grasp of his methods or principles.
Don Quixote has eluded many adaptors before now; even the master magician of narrative, Orson Welles, took over twenty years to shoot an unfinished hotch-potch of a film which has defied the most reverent and scrupulous reconstruction work. Johnston's version is a potentially honourable failure, dishonoured by Ribas's production. The Gate's current season is entitled "Idiots", but idiocy possesses a fundamental energy; this production is more "dullards".
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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