Hatch at NEAT14: Don Quijote by Tom Frankland and Keir Cooper with Ultimo Comboio

Text: Wayne Burrows
Photography: Julian Hughes

Look up the word ‘Quixotic’ in a dictionary and you’ll find a list of synonyms that includes idealistic, unbusinesslike, romantic, extravagant, starry-eyed, visionary, utopian, unrealistic, other-worldly, impractical, not-viable, useless, ineffective, implausible and impossible. The word itself stems from the tragi-comic hero of Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes’ novel The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, published in two parts, one in 1605, the other in 1615 (though the second part only appeared after someone else had beaten Cervantes to his own sequel, which then became the subject of the actual sequel he felt compelled to produce). As with most things related to Don Quixote – its story, author, characters and history – it’s all very complicated, confusing, absurd and entertaining. Nothing about it should work, but it does.

Don Quijote by Tom Frankland and Keir Cooper with Ultimo Comboio [image credit Julian Hughes]

Don Quijote by Tom Frankland and Keir Cooper with Ultimo Comboio [image credit Julian Hughes]

You could argue that the real beauty of both the Spanish novel, Don Quixote, and Don Quijote, the performance by Tom Frankland and Keir Cooper with Ultimo Comboio seen at Playworks in St Ann’s on Friday night, is that they’re united in being authentically Quixotic ventures. The idea of of adapting an epic 900 page novel, regularly considered one of the greatest books ever written, into a 60 minute performance on something less than a shoestring, is only one part of that equation. It’s the performers’ possession of an apparently unshakeable belief in the resulting unstable construction that seals the deal and renders Don Quijote mostly invulnerable to criticism. The more that goes wrong, the greater its failures, the more Quixotic it becomes, giving concrete form to the wider political point Frankland and Cooper aim to make: that only by choosing to live in the world as it might be, not as it is, and doing this now, when we’re at the greatest risk of failure, can we hope to actually change the world, even if we probably won’t. It is the tragedy of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, after all, that its hero finally regains his sanity and returns to his worldly duties: in losing his delusions, he loses hope.

Don Quijote by Tom Frankland and Keir Cooper with Ultimo Comboio [image credit Julian Hughes]

Don Quijote by Tom Frankland and Keir Cooper with Ultimo Comboio [image credit Julian Hughes]

The performance itself takes the form of a kind of cabaret. We are ushered into a room where Y Viva Espana is playing, then handed red cushions and invited to sit pretty much anywhere we like on the floor. A shadow play begins, skipping back and forth between iconic scenes from Don Quixote, as though the whole first book has been put through a narrative blender (a copy of Edith Grossman’s translation is physically dismembered with a power-saw at one later point). When Quijote himself appears among us it turns out that he (or in this case she, given that the guest role is tonight played by Priya Mistry – the next day it’s Selina Mosinski’s turn) has been hidden in an armchair under a dust-sheet all along. With some assistance from the audience a suit of armour is constructed from cardboard boxes, bubble-wrap and parcel tape. A spear and toy horse are found. A few poses are thrown. But no sooner is the lead character in place and costumed than she promptly snags a volunteer to act as her very own Sancho Panza and leaves the venue to go on an adventure.

Don Quijote by Tom Frankland and Keir Cooper with Ultimo Comboio [image credit Julian Hughes]

Don Quijote by Tom Frankland and Keir Cooper with Ultimo Comboio [image credit Julian Hughes]

With Quijote AWOL, it’s left to Frankland, Cooper and Juan Carlos Otero to deliver a rag-bag of stories, skits, guitar solos, elaborately layered jokes and deadly serious political lectures to fill in until Quijote returns. There are Skype conversations and some very basic DJ skills. They do a soothsaying monkey act, put on a bullfighter outfit, bicker about questions concerning the authenticity of their representations of Spanish culture to a soundtrack of Tijuana Brass. There is a sentimental and possibly true story about rose petals, there is live drumming and more shadow theatre. It’s messy, silly, deliberately hit and miss stuff, which you could take as unformed and indulgent, or might equally plausibly see as following the form adopted by Cervantes’ own novel, cobbled together as it is around a slender thread of picaresque plot from a jumble of set-piece scenes, philosophical digressions, literary parodies, swipes at enemies and detractors and disillusioned commentary on the world of his own day. The parcel-taping together of our Guest Quijote’s armour from scraps of cardboard turns out to have been less a minor early scene than a declaration of intent.

Don Quijote by Tom Frankland and Keir Cooper with Ultimo Comboio [image credit Julian Hughes]

Don Quijote by Tom Frankland and Keir Cooper with Ultimo Comboio [image credit Julian Hughes]

The final act consists of a roll call of modern-day Quijotes, ranging from Brian Haw and Pussy Riot to the ‘nudist rambler’ Stephen Gough, before Mistry returns to take a bow and shred some pages from that destroyed copy of Don Quixote. These shreds will, it seems, be thrown into the air in a celebration of impossible odds, blown over the audience’s heads like wedding confetti using a powerful electric fan. This is where we celebrate that we are all, at least potentially, a Quijote with the power to change the world. Except, inevitably, that’s not quite how it goes. The fan fails to work, the confetti is feebly thrown by hand, and when Frankland dips behind the set to check the plug sockets he topples over a big red placard that reads: ‘ALMOST DEFINITELY FAIL’. It turns out that Don Quijote really is supposed to end with a working fan and a storm of confetti, but I couldn’t help thinking that this version, where it all goes wrong and Frankland is still fiddling with a plug on the floor when the lights come up, somehow seems more apt than the real finale would have been.

Don Quijote by Tom Frankland and Keir Cooper with Ultimo Comboio [image credit Julian Hughes]

Don Quijote by Tom Frankland and Keir Cooper with Ultimo Comboio [image credit Julian Hughes]

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