Cervantes’ classic picaresque novel Don Quijote has been singled out as the best literary work ever written. But it might just also be one of the maddest. Written in two parts, the second was partly in response to a false sequel, using increasingly metatheatrical tactics to make digs at the masquerading author. It is just this sort of wackiness, alongside the blind optimism of the protagonist, that most characterises this zany theatrical treatment.
The gloriously anarchic approach taken by Tom Frankland, Keir Cooper and Último Comboio is one that simultaneously mirrors and dismantles the classic text at its heart. Its irreverent attitude towards the Cervantes is one that Don Quijote himself would have approved of, ripping up the pages of the book both literally and figuratively. Aside from a few projected chapter summaries and a bit of wonky yet charming shadow puppetry, there is little attempt to retell the narrative of Cervantes’ novel. Instead, its structure and spirit find their way onto the makeshift and ever-moving stage, as audience members have to negotiate both this madcap show and the space in which it is presented. Messily arranged on cushions on the floor, we can quickly find ourselves in the centre of the shifting action, hastily moving along with the piece.
There are some brilliant nods to Cervantes along the way, as the show offers a constant commentary on itself and its creation. There is even, in the style of the second volume, an imitating imposter. But what these theatremakers are most interested in is what the character of Don Quijote represents, both then and now. They suggest modern day Don Quijotes, individuals who have imagined a better future and done something about it no matter how fiercely the world seems to oppose them, while posing a series of questions to their audience in a thrilling attempt to galvanise us. This moment, framed with darkness and backed by a drumbeat, is a brief piece of theatrical magic, but elsewhere the aesthetic can feel disjointed, chaotic and unfinished. While there’s something apt about this untidiness, recalling Don Quijote’s enthusiastic but often ill-equipped attempts at change, it threatens to lose its audience along the way.
What ultimately brings the piece together is its challenge to follow in the steps of Don Quijote and challenge the status quo even when failure is the only possible outcome. By recruiting a different guest performer to play the title character each night, the piece suggests that anyone can take on this boldly hopeful role, transforming Don Quijote into a symbol of something greater. This message, however, is not without its problems. Although the determination to try despite the odds initially seems courageous, the acceptance of certain failure lets everyone off the hook somewhat. The central sentiment is intoxicating, but its expression is in danger of letting it down.