Two paradoxes underpin the success of West Yorkshire Playhouse’s excellent version of Don Quixote. The design and some elements of the production are aggressively up-to-date, but Pablo Ley and Colin Teevan’s adaptation remains essentially faithful to the original. The director Josep Galindo and one of the writers are Spanish, but the production is home to some of the most poised and precise English speaking I’ve heard recently in the theatre.
Gideon Davey’s set consists of a long rectangle with computer screen, Coke machine and little else in front of folding glass panels which serve as mirror, window and screen on which are projected modern images of a journey through La Mancha. The characters assembled at the start wear imaginatively caricatured modern costumes, but the words we hear are the opening of Cervantes’ novel, given sonorous voice by Cervantes’ own narrator, Cide Hamete Benengeli (Andrew Dennis).
From time to time a book thuds onto the stage from the flies, emphasising the centrality of the text. Most intriguingly, the second half takes on board the question of artistic reality: an impostor appears and the validity of text and characters is questioned, though with a suitable lightness of touch.
The story-line follows the expected pattern. Don Quixote’s household tries to break him of his infatuation with the old romances by destroying his books, he takes to the road as knight errant with his squire Sancho Panza, is led into adventures by foolishness and increasing mania and is dragged back home by his friends and relations. Later, as a celebrated eccentric, he becomes the object of mockery and humiliation. Finally, he realises all is illusion and returns home to die.
The narrative method, however, is anything but conventional. Galindo, Ley and Teevan are seldom explicit: one event happens, then another, and we must make sense of them. The manner of audience involvement is unusual: there’s no hectoring or badgering, but the audience is made complicit in the events as scenes are played out in Row L or the punters’ opinions are (apparently) canvassed.
It’s a very refreshing and stimulating approach, made more so by the fact that, despite the boisterous physical theatre, the central character’s fragile dignity is never compromised. As Don Quixote, Greg Hicks is memorably haunted, perhaps a little understated, but ultimately very moving, and Tony Bell’s perpetually surprised Sancho Panza matches him in innocence and wonderment. The remaining eight actors parade a sequence of sharply etched characters, carrying off increasingly bizarre costumes with aplomb.