Garrick Theatre, London – until 2 February 2019
Need a Christmas outing? Quailing at panto, feel you and the kids need some Euro-culture to counteract Brexidepression? Trust the RSC, and a return of James Fenton’s version of the deluded knight-errantry of Cervantes’ 17c satire. Our hero traverses Spain on a cobbled-up Rosinante, aglow with well-meaning chivalry and succeeding only in annoying tavern-keepers, shepherds, clergy and his dismayed volunteer squire Sancho Panza. As a parable of the apparent inadequacy of legend in a real world, it is timeless and matchless.
Angus Jackson’s production makes everything of it: countless visual jokes, horseplay, bread rolls hurled between ensemble and audience, cast members collapsing on the laps of the front rows. Sancho Panza is Rufus Hound, to whom I am at last reconciled, and able to forgive his awful excursion into Coward as Gary Essendine at Chichester. He does his amiable joshing standup to get us going, well in his natural element and a massive fat-suit, but by the strange end is emotionally engaged, credible, even touching.
There are Pythonesque, Blackadderish nonsenses to enjoy and some nice windmills and dodgy flying. But the real and central delight is David Threlfall as the self-styled Don Quixote de La Mancha. From the first moment, an old old man so deep in his books that the ensemble gathers around him singing the legend of Lancelot in his poor head, I was in love with every straggling white lock. When repeatedly his visor falls over one eye and his enthusiasm overcomes sense he radiates a dignity-in-absurdity that has heart as well as humour. He inhabits the character totally as good comic actors must: unaware, sincere, genuine, mad.
The second half darkens into real old-Spain torments and mockeries, though enlivened by an excellent two-man lion, a hawk, a joust, innumerable puppet cats and some more horsing around by the horses (this is very RSC in its allowing ensemble individuals to shine). The near-Lear death scene is particularly harrowing to those of us by this time helplessly in love with every clank of Mr Threlfall’s cuirasses: perhaps have a couple of drinks in the interval, and tell the kids it really is all right in the end, in the best of all peculiar Spanish worlds.
box office 0330 333 4811 To 2 feb