DON QUIXOTE WAR HORSE PORGY AND BESS
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