views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Knight of the Sorrowful Figure
The Blue Elephant Theatre
21st May 2013


Patricia Rodriguez, Merce Ribot and Dennis Herdman

Photography © Alex Brenner

So what I like to do when writing a review, provided the show isn't devoid of any merit, is to have a few paragraphs of niceties. Establish a respect for the players, showing both them and the reader that I mean no harm in what I'm saying. The feedback is constructive, the blow of my faults with their work hopefully cushioned against platitudes. Well here, I'm chucking that idea out. I'm going straight in with all of my issues and the company be damned - which you might think unkind considering this is the first performance of a scratch piece. But here goes...

Little Soldier productions, just stop. Please, don't do anything more with this piece. Seriously, it's not worth it. You'll just be wasting your time if you try to polish this. Do your Blue Elephant run, then pack up and create something different.

Presumably you've seen the star rating at the head of this review, so don't take the previous paragraph in the wrong way. I'm saying this as I witnessed one of the best trial-run performances I've ever seen. It's only fair, then, that in my criticism, I attempt a nod to Little Solider's adaptation of Cervantes' Don Quixote and make sure everything isn't quite as it seems. The short version of this is that they have managed, in a way that the Reduced Shakespeare Company would be proud of, to capture a large part of the narrative of the original book. More importantly, they also manage to wrestle with its themes, despite its outward appearance as a light comedy. It's a task even director Terry Gilliam failed at, but one that's no problem for director Ian Nicholson here.

The show begins with a forced Q and A session as the trio of performers - Patricia Rodriguez, Mercè Ribot and Dennis Herdman - explain the genesis of the production, introduce themselves and set out their stall before launching into the condensed version of Don Quixote. If you're one of the seven people on earth who haven't heard of this novel, it follows Quixote (Ribot), under the delusion he's a knight, and his faithful assistant Sancho Panza (Rodriguez) as they go on a series of adventures. The most famous of which is an attempt to attack a bunch of windmills because Quixote thinks they're giants. A kind reading makes it an allegory for shooting at the stars and attaining our full potential. A more realistic version is that it's a tale of a mentally ill man bumbling about, a danger to himself and everyone and everything he comes into contact with.

Writer Tiffany Wood blends the two strands well, making Quixote a noble but sympathetic (and pathetic) figure - a trait shared by this meta-production. On the surface, she's concocted a script that's full of laughs, the same zaniness and satire that's put forward by Cervantes, and certainly one that can be enjoyed as an out-and-out madcap comedy in the vein of The 39 Steps.

Dig a little deeper and you discover an incredibly well put-together, precise and considered piece. From the outset the players are seemingly doomed to fail, labouring under the illusion that, with three Spaniards on board, they are the best team to put on this piece. It's both true (they clearly love the book and succeed) and not true at the same time. They're constantly undermined by their own failings as actors, having to do the windmill scene three times as the much-maligned Dennis keeps getting too tired when swinging his arms about, for example. They frequently come across as deluded as Quixote himself, but also as honourable. It's very knowing, very metatextual, very clever, and the trio attack and embrace the stupidity with relish.

Nicholson has really brought out the best in the group when it comes to physical theatre too. Against a chalk drawing of La Mancha, they gurn, get hit by cushions, flip the perspective of the stage and literally horse about to put a smile on your face. If the intensity of the script wasn't matched by speedy, sharp and rapid direction this would be a non-starter and it really is. The energy exhibited in every aspect of this even covers the few lines, maybe literally four or five, that don't either deliver a joke or advance the plot. It's a magnificent hit rate. From beginning to end - even during the bows - there are big and little gags to keep you entertained.

Okay, so I wasn't totally honest in above - I do have one slight issue. It's clear that the company's love for the tale is deep and meaningful, so why, from a 900-odd page book, do we get a measly hour's worth of entertainment? With the skills displayed here, they all have the ability to wring an extra 30 mintues out of the novel and make it an unapologetic full-length piece. But if they decide to keep it at an hour, it's one as damn close to perfection as we're ever going to get.

The Knight of the Sorrowful Figure ran from 21st to 25th May 2013 at the Blue Elephant Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Oval (Northern)

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