Panta Rei Theatre have taken over a floor of Peckham’s rambling Bussey Building to create a promenade through the equally rambling mind of Don Quixote de la Mancha. The international art and research collective have taken Cervantes’ self-appointed knight as a vehicle for the exploration of mental illness, melding his story with snatches of Hamlet and the psychedelic bestiary of Hieronymous Bosch. There’s ambition to spare and several clever moments, but with so many ideas ricocheting around and a slack, baggy narrative, Rocinante! Rocinante! never really comes together.
Don Quixote is lost in an unknown location in the middle of the night. Together with his horse, Rocinante, the faithful Sancho and his own donkey mount, the knight is watched by Elsinore’s own gravediggers, and tormented by a stream of terrible visions and strange encounters. It’s an intriguing concept, as director Chiara D’Anna noted in an essay for Exeunt, both Don Quixote and Hamlet are deeply concerned with question of madness and sanity, and the line between the real and the imagined: Cervantes’ knight and Shakespeare’s prince make a promising pairing. Panta Rei allow the two texts to slide freely against one another, fusing together and breaking apart, occasionally reflecting on one another and at other times passing like ships in the night.
The text reels giddily between English and Spanish, and between the chivalric satire of Cervantes and a kind of cod-Beckettian philosophising. The theme of mental illness bubbles to the surface, together with questions of mortality and destiny, but sadly much of the dialogue is unclear. Juancho Gonzalez is an energetic and charismatic Don Quixotic but he, together with much of the cast, is often inaudible. At times the action is so frenetic, and played at such a manic pitch that it becomes incomprehensible. At others it slows to a crawl, and the company flirts with self-indulgence. Evidently the result of a long period of research and devising, it needs a stronger hand to wrestle the tumult of images and ideas into a decipherable dramatic entity. An hour is scarcely time enough to do justice to a quarter of the concepts which Panta Rei attempt, and truthfully Rocinante! Rocinante! is both confusing and unsatisfying.
The flip side of this is that there are some truly striking and effective scenes. The arrival of the gravediggers, puffing on a joint from behind a camouflaged DJ booth, is ingenious, and their scenes contain much of the play’s best and clearest dialogue. Most powerful of all are the scenes of Bosch-inspired phantasmagoria; the visions which pursue Don Quixote are wittily designed and genuinely frightening, with hellish pulsing demons emerging from the clever manipulation of umbrellas, fabric and lighting. The design is at its strongest here, elsewhere, like much of the production, it feels excessively patchwork.
Despite confinement to a single room, the promenade approach works well. Having played host to the Royal Court’s Theatre Local project, the CLF Art Café is a promising and very welcome theatrical presence, and though this may not be an entirely effective piece, it is encouraging to see such an inventive and intelligent company as Panta Rei making excellent use of it.