The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Paul Bai­ley


Don Quixote is one of those tow­er­ing comic mas­ter­pieces that every­body knows about but com­par­a­tively few peo­ple, I sus­pect, have ever ac­tu­ally read.

Its many trans­la­tions into English are dis­tinctly vari­able in qual­ity and of­ten at odds with the in­ten­tions of Miguel de Cer­vantes, the ge­nius who wrote the novel that trans­formed the art of sto­ry­telling. Ac­cord­ing to V S Pritch­ett, the shrewdest and most gen­er­ous­hearted of lit­er­ary crit­ics, who was flu­ent in Span­ish, Cer­vantes’s tone is one of sub­tle and de­cep­tive wit rather than the bawdy hu­mour to be found in the pi­caresque fic­tion of Field­ing and To­bias Smol­lett – an­other con­tro­ver­sial trans­la­tor of the great work.

An­gus Jack­son’s pro­duc­tion of James Fen­ton’s adap­ta­tion of Don Quixote, which had its premiere at the RSC’S Swan The­atre in Strat­ford two years ago, is now play­ing at the Gar­rick The­atre through­out the Christ­mas sea­son. It’s a pre­dom­i­nantly hu­mor­ous af­fair, though the me­lan­choly strain that in­forms the orig­i­nal hasn’t been over­looked. It comes to the fore in David Threlfall’s mag­is­te­rial in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the ti­tle role, es­pe­cially in the touch­ing fi­nal scenes when he be­gins to glimpse the in­fi­nite folly of his ways.

In the first act, which con­tains all the fa­mous in­ci­dents from Book One in Fen­ton’s adroit ver­sion (the tilt­ing at wind­mills; the brawl at the inn; the in­vad­ing army that’s re­ally a flock of sheep; the free­ing of the dan­ger­ous crim­i­nals), his Knight of the Woe­ful Coun­te­nance takes ev­ery hu­mil­i­a­tion in his in­creas­ingly shaky stride.

In the sec­ond, which is more or less faith­ful to Book Two, writ­ten ten years af­ter its pre­de­ces­sor, he has be­come a house­hold name in Spain, thanks to the writ­ings of Señor Cer­vantes. The best­selling book re­count­ing his mis­ad­ven­tures be­comes a no­table prop in the hands of the ac­tors. The ran­dom cal­lous­ness of his treat­ment by drunks and con­victs is now more sin­is­ter and spite­ful when ex­er­cised by a duke and duchess and their will­ing courtiers. Cer­vantes knows that there is noth­ing more heart­less and un­funny than the prac­ti­cal joke.

Quixote’s squire, the down-to-earth San­cho Panza, is played with ob­vi­ous rel­ish by Ru­fus Hound, who has a

nat­u­ral, easy-go­ing way with the au­di­ence. This is a Christ­mas show, af­ter all; so it’s wholly ap­pro­pri­ate that San­cho should seek the as­sis­tance of the chil­dren watch­ing.

If the core of the story – a de­luded old man em­u­lat­ing the ex­ploits of the chival­ric he­roes in the books in his li­brary – gets some­what lost in the pro­ceed­ings, it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter. The pro­duc­tion is fast-paced, with ev­ery­one in the com­pany, in­clud­ing the mu­si­cians, tak­ing mis­chievous de­light in the am­bi­tious en­ter­prise.

One leaves the the­atre with the un­for­get­table im­age of the self-ap­pointed knight re­stored to hu­man­ity at last, happy in death, sur­rounded by lov­ing friends as he closes his eyes on the cruel world for ever.

Mar­i­anne El­liott and Tom Mor­ris’s won­der­ful pro­duc­tion of War Horse, adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Mor­purgo’s novel, is at the Lyt­tel­ton The­atre un­til 5th Jan­uary, be­fore em­bark­ing on a na­tional tour. The piece has a spe­cial poignancy for me in that I learned, af­ter my fa­ther’s death, that he had been in the Bri­tish Army Ser­vice Corps as a wag­goner on the Western Front from 1916 un­til the end of the war and be­yond.

Al­bert, the young farm­hand in Mor­purgo’s de­cep­tively sim­ple tale, is dis­mayed when his hap­less fa­ther sells the boy’s beloved horse, Joey, to a cav­alry of­fi­cer on the eve of the First World War. As the story pro­ceeds, Al­bert lies about his age and is even­tu­ally en­listed. Joey is sub­jected to any num­ber of in­dig­ni­ties – be­ing beaten by his German cap­tors is only one of them – un­til he is aban­doned in no-man’s-land. The scene in which he is re­united with the in­jured Al­bert is deeply af­fect­ing.

Joey and the other horses, Topthorn and Coco, are rep­re­sented by the bril­liant Hand­spring Pup­pet Com­pany, which some­how bring these beau­ti­ful crea­tures to star­tling the­atri­cal life. There’s a goose, too, which makes sar­donic com­ments on the ter­ri­ble events. The hu­mans are pretty good, too, with Thomas Den­nis quite out­stand­ing as poor Al­bert. The pro­duc­tion is now into its sec­ond decade and will no doubt make it into a third.

The brand-new pro­duc­tion of Ge­orge Gersh­win’s Porgy and Bess for English Na­tional Opera, in as­so­ci­a­tion with the Metropoli­tan Opera, New York, and Dutch Na­tional Opera, is a com­plete tri­umph in ev­ery as­pect. James Robin­son has di­rected it with unerring skill and the sets, cos­tumes, light­ing and chore­og­ra­phy are in per­fect har­mony.

Eric Greene is the de­fin­i­tive Porgy, and Ni­cole Ca­bell makes Bess a more com­plex, and there­fore a more sym­pa­thetic, char­ac­ter than she usu­ally ap­pears to be. John Wil­son con­ducts the mag­i­cal score with the flair that’s now ex­pected of him. It has to be­come a per­ma­nent fea­ture of the ENO’S reper­toire.

Take my hy­per­bolic word for it. This Porgy and Bess is here to stay.

Knight’s move: David Threlfall is mag­is­te­rial in Don Quixote

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