The RSC – hell, the country as a whole – has rightly made a joyous hullaballoo about the fact that this year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It’s also the 400th anniversary of the death of Miguel de Cervantes, and it’s lovely to see the RSC allowing Shakespeare’s Spanish compadre a slot in its Stratford line-up. Cervantes’ unwieldy genre-defining two-part picaresque adventure has been cleverly adapted into a gratifying three hours of stage time by James Fenton. It’s amusingly absurd, as it should be, but it also attains levels of quiet grace and bruised dignity that took me very pleasantly by surprise. Why shouldn’t we, it asks, be left to dream our dreams in peace? Why do others feel the need to puncture them quite so viciously?
If you’re going to stage Don Quixote, as few understandably do, it’s imperative to cast the central duo, Quixote and squire Sancho Panza, with the greatest of care. The RSC has hit upon a most felicitous pairing with David Threlfall, overwhelmingly known now as one of our leading television actors, and comedian-turned-straight-performer Rufus Hound. The former is an aged knight in creaky armour, the latter a cuddly chancer who rather unexpectedly finds loyalty growing upon him. Together they become moving in their ramshackly comradeship and noble in their shabbiness. When their pretensions are finally and brutally stripped bare in the house of the vicious Duke and Duchess, we flinch for the cruel treatment of these quiet dreamers.
It’s heartening to see the RSC loosen its doublet and hose a little and allow some humour and audience interaction onto its stages. Hound is a dab hand at this at the start, gleefully informing us that it’s going to be a long evening and to listen out for an entirely incongruous mention of "Stockholm." The cogs of the plot are beginning to whir and Sancho is, at this point, as sceptical as the rest of them. After a lifetime of reading books on chivalry, Don Q decides to embark upon his own spree of knight errantry to restore the age of heroism to Spain. But Spain, unfortunately, is not interested, and the Don comes to seem an increasingly isolated and ridiculous figure, tilting at those famous windmills that he thinks are giants.
There’s lovely work in the puppetry department to render the Don’s trusty steed Rocinante as an amusing cross between War Horse and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s a delightfully creaky piece of machinery, pulled glumly in rotation by members of the lively ensemble. There are some plangent original songs from Grant Olding, whose soundtrack for One Man, Two Guvnors was such a hit, which Threlfall delivers with frisson in his rasping, plaintive voice.
The danger with such an undertaking is that the best of intentions could nevertheless careen wildly out of control. Director Angus Jackson, whose work on Oppenheimer for the RSC last year showed him to be the man for a potentially tricky text, keeps a wonderfully steady hand on proceedings. In this year of Shakespeare, this proves a much-appreciated if unexpected treat.