White Bear, London – until 4 March 2017
“Don’t blame the bridle for what the donkey did.”
They say you should live before you start to write and there’s no doubt that Miguel de Cervantes did exactly that. His legacy as one of, if not the greatest writer in the Spanish language was secured by his novel Don Quixote but in the years before it was published, de Cervantes was, among other things, a tax collector, a purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada, a resident of Seville jail, and a soldier who was captured by Barbary pirates and held captive for five years between 1585 and 1580.
And it is that period of captivity in the Ottoman-ruled city of Algiers that playwright Dermot Murphy has chosen to set his play Don Quixote in Algiers, imagining what life might have been like and how his experience shaped crucial aspects of his creative thinking. It’s a bold concept and a formally adventurous play, but also one that proves difficult to crack as its fragmented narrative is more impenetrable than playful and the weight of its detailed research rarely allows the piece to fly.
Flickering between real life and fantasy, memory and myth, Franko Figueiredo’s production is too often baffling as Álvaro Flores’ Miguel bounces from repeated escape attempts to self-indulgent poetic outbursts whether on paper or out loud. His captor Si Ali, a warm Fanos Xenofós, is busy trying to marry off his daughter Zohra, Rachel Summers, but she’d rather become a nun, having been seduced by the idealised remembrances of Polly Nayler’s Carmen, Ali’s former concubine.
Thus Murphy explores notions of madness and freedom, spanning both religious and gender divides, but structuring them this way and layering them so densely becomes too much of a challenge. Creatively, Natalie Jackson’s design is beautifully conceived with its suggestions of the souk as well as abstracted sanity, but as Dinah Mullen’s intriguingly textured sound design increasingly disorients the characters, there’s no hiding from the fact that we’re just as dislocated, if not more so.