Don Quijote is one of those books that people think they know, but have seldom read. It exists in the public psyche as a funny tale of achieving your dream against the odds, of a madman who believes that windmills are giants and that he is a knight.
When we first started making the production we were working with a performer who had a very traditional Quijote physicality and we thought it would be an interesting starting point. But as we read the book we discovered a different tone running through it.
For sure, it is funny and brilliant and playful and all the things associated, but there is also a violence and an anger that Cervantes directs at his protagonist again and again.
More and more, we felt that the story was not of an individual living their dream, but about how society responds when an individual behaves outside the established norms. And it isn’t about achieving a dream that is based in self-fulfillment (at least not solely) because Don Quijote wants to change the world for the better.
Radicals are either seen as clowns or oracles. In either case, how society responds to these people is all too often nothing short of horrifying. Cervantes himself is a radical of literature as much due to the story itself as the audacious and witty attitude to the writing and form. As a consequence, Cervantes and the book’s own history became part of our retelling of Don Quijote.
We wanted to say that this book isn’t just a classic comedy about chasing your dreams; it was written 400 years ago from inside a prison cell, telling a tale of the individual’s struggle within society.
In 400 years, society’s treatment of its radical dreamers hasn’t changed all that much. We wanted to approach this production with the same brazen attitude Cervantes took to the theme and with equal irreverence, presenting our own radical and absurd worldview.
This is far from a Royal Opera House ballet reflecting the beauty of Spain, yet all of the elements that exist within our performance have a direct relationship with the book.
We also wanted to give the theme of struggle a position within the piece. In the book, Don Quijote’s companion, Sancho Panza, attempts to tell a story about a sheep which is interrupted, and this served as a cheeky style to adhere to with overlapping action that is only just digested before being whipped away and replaced by a different agenda – the novel is always one step ahead of the reader, as we needed to be with our audience.
There is a long history of Don Quijote adaptations being doomed to failure. Orson Welles failed to complete his film version, as did Terry Gilliam – although the latter’s documentary about the thwarted process: Lost in La Mancha perhaps stands as a far more fitting tribute to the novel than the intended film. We also have found ourselves prey at times to this curse of Quijote … but each time something appeared to fail, this opened up a new opportunity within the production. For instance, the loss of our central performer created the possibillity of inviting a different guest performer to play the role each night, a conceit that actually represents our central theme far better: that whilst not everyone should be a Quijote, there is the potential for it within everyone.
The performance itself remains a preposterous undertaking, as we need to build each of the installations during a get-in, prepare a non-theatre space to be suitable, and spend two hours prepping a new lead actor each night. And then clean up all the mess we make.
We have lived with the story for two years whilst we have been finding our way through it and learning what we wanted to say. In many ways the central question is about our inherited situation – should one challenge perceived injustice or find acceptance? And that’s not a loaded question – as with the novel, we understand very well that challenges can lead to death, or death of spirit, but it is a question pertinent to any observance of inhumanity and inheritance of unacceptable situations.
There has been some positive critique of our production that comments on the lightness and charm. But for us, after the opening first few sequences, our levity is warpaint. It may not sink in straight away, but on reflection, like a lot of comedy, it hopefully reveals a serious morality upon digestion.
And this is how we found the book too.
Don Quijote is running at Camden People’s Theatre until 1st February 2014.