Arts: Through the Quixote

THEATRE: DON QUIXOTE DE LA MANCHA THE GATE THEATRE LONDON
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IF YOU'RE thinking of adapting a novel for the stage, there's a useful game you can play called "Where's the interval?". As most novels tend not to have a dramatic climax half-way through, this is not quite as fatuous as it sounds.

Unfortunately, although Cervantes's satirical romance Don Quixote de la Mancha is famously in two parts, I suspect that neither the director, Marta Momblant Ribas, nor the adapter, David Johnston, thought about such things when they decided to stage it. However, their decision of how best to divide the action into two halves pales beside the other problems of how to dramatise this episodic, peripatetic narrative.

The relationship between reader and character is profoundly different to that between audience and character. The novel's strength rests on the satisfying literary device of repetition, each new scene colourfully reinforcing the basic idea of the impossible idealism of the knight as counterpointed by the realism of his canny rustic sidekick, Sancho Panza. In the theatre, which tends to rely on character determining and driving dramatic action, this shaping of the material proves less interesting. Yes, I know the novel triumphed on stage as Man of La Mancha, but that was a rare instance of a musical in which music had a real function: to enrich and develop dramatically unleavened material.

Given that El Quixote, then, is not a story of unexpected narrative twists and turns, the director has to find different ways of ensnaring the viewer. Ribas is helped immeasurably by Bruno Santini's earthy design, which conjures the dusky Spanish heat through a concentration of burnished, coppery reds and yellows. He also builds scaffolding into the tiny space to create different levels, and seats the audience round the action - much of which is cunningly suspended upon a wooden platform lifted and lowered by the hard-working cast.

The production is dedicated to the memory of Jacques Lecoq, whose physical theatre training-school is responsible for the blossoming of generations of talents. Consequently, there is undeniable vigour in the committed ensemble acting, particularly in the large-scale set-pieces. Yet much of the acting is effortful and the sound of overly hearty, actorly laughter points to a lack of substance beneath the surface. Too often, the cast appear to have been left to their own devices. Like too many directors, Ribas is stronger on staging images than on delivering text through the voices.

Visually, Patrick Kealey's Don looks as if he has stepped out of a Velasquez painting (colours by El Greco?) but his pedantically measured delivery fatally slows the pace still further. Mehmet Ergen tries to inject life into the proceedings as Sancho Panza, but the script's weak comedy does him few favours.

There's a partially effective device of the story being read to two girls but when someone remarks, "I'm sorry, I'm not persuaded by this scene", it's hard not to agree.

David Benedict

To 27 March (0171-229 0706)

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