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Features Essays Published 8 February 2012

Madness and Theatre

Panta Rei Theatre is a collective of international artists and researchers interested in promoting interdisciplinary collaborations beyond the realm of performing arts to explore on a deep level issues and topics that are relevant to any individual regardless of cultural, economic and social backgrounds. They are currently rehearsing Rocinante! Rocinante!, a site-specific, interactive performance influenced by Hamlet and Don Quixote.
Chiara D'Anna

During the Baroque period, the Catholic church saw madness as the Devil’s manifestation.  Alchemists and healers sought answers in astronomy, astrology and the natural world. At Panta Rei Theatre Collective, we’re fascinated by this theme and its theatrical implications. What are the boundaries between fantasy and reality? Our site specific, promenade piece Rocinante! Rocinante! (the name of Don Quixote’s horse, since you ask) explores just that, taking inspiration from two of the period’s best know works on the subject: Don Quixote and Hamlet. I’m an Italian and English is not my first language. Damn it, why didn’t we choose Dante instead?

Don’t worry, we’re not staging them both. At least, not on this budget. We’re inspired by these works by those two exact contemporaries to ask how we can define madness, or at least have fun finding out. Definite answers make for dull art, I think.

We want to create parallel worlds on stage: the real and the imaginary, in the form of memories, dreams and illusions. We inhabit these worlds with our audiences by sharing the theatrical experience in the most profound and honest way we are capable of.  We developed a site-specific and immersive promenade performance because we believe that the conventional separation between actors and spectators (stage-auditorium) won’t allow us to engage our audiences on the same level. We want our spectators to be part of our worlds rather than simply witnessing their creation. We lead them through the restless mind of Don Quixote de la Mancha. A great visionary, a dreamer, a man with the imagination of a child or simply a madman. It depends on your point of view.

Candles and skulls.

At times we tried to see the world from his eyes, and we also put ourselves on the other side. Theatrically speaking – I have to admit – his world is much more interesting. Windmills are giants, wooden spoons are flowers. The challenge is to lead the spectators with us and let them see these fictions. The physical form becomes irrelevant: what really counts is what we believe collectively in the present moment.

To go back a step, Cervantes is an almost exact contemporary of Shakespeare – they both died on the same day, 23rd April 1616, which makes for a curious comparison. Cervantes constantly disorientates the reader to the point of making the characters themselves aware of the books that have been written about them, breaking the conventional separation between fiction and reality.  Hamlet stares into the empty eyes of a skull and talks of infinite jest, the first line of the play asks, “Who’s there?”  Post modernism? It’s all right there in the seventeenth century.

In our story Don Quixote arrives in a cemetery and stumbles upon Hamlet’s gravediggers, involved in alchemical experiments as they debate the meanings of life, death and everything in between. In some occasions we devised around the themes, in others we made Shakespeare’s words our own. For us, however, Hamlet  never appears. Ophelia does, even if her name in our story is Dulcinea: Don Quixote’s main female character.

We create a sense of Don Quixote’s illusions, dreams and nightmares from the grotesque of Commedia dell’Arte, the surreal and absurd world of the Carnival and the powerful integration of tragedy and comedy of Cervantes: all the big styles of the Spanish Golden Age.  Our designers were inspired by documentation on treatments of mental illness.

The action takes place in a cemetery as both works are preoccupied with death. One opens with death, the other ends there. For me, Don Quixote’s death is painfully tragic and wonderfully sublime at the same time. A powerful statement of freedom, Cervantes seems to say that life is not worth living on other people’s terms. Don Quixote is happy (and mad?) in the world of dreams. Which one would you choose?

Rocinante! Rocinante! plays at CLF Art Café, Peckham from February 10th – March 2nd 2012. For more information and tickets, please click here.

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