at Camden People’s Theatre, Saturday 18th January 2014
Like most people (I imagine), I’ve never read Miguel de Cervantes’ seventeenth century novel(s) Don Quixote. The Wordsworth Classics edition has sat unopened on my bookshelf for about ten years, and if I’m honest I doubt it’ll be read any time soon. But I know the story (broadly), and I know the characters (broadly). Most importantly in the context of Tom Frankland and Keir Cooper’s Don Quijote, however, I am – again, I imagine, like most people – aware of the cultural value and baggage surrounding the book’s protagonist. Don Quijote isn’t your straightforward page-to-stage, follow-the-narrative-and-throw-in-something-about-form-and-hope-for-the-best adaptation of a novel. It’s an interrogation of an idea, of a symbol which has come to stand for something far bigger than itself and which, in the process of pulling it apart in this show, becomes even bigger. It’s joyous and angry in equal measure, and demonstrates the example set by Cervantes’ hidalgo to be one worth following.
The piece is being presented as part of the ‘Hard to Resist’ festival at Camden People’s Theatre, which is unsurprising considering its themes of resistance and dreaming. Its opening, however, is fairly innocuous and lulls you into a false sense of calm. Indeed, for about ten or fifteen minutes there’s little speech at all, as a fairly silly and basic bit of ‘shadow puppetry’ gives way to watching the ‘guest Don Quijote’ – in this case Cariad Lloyd – read a book and piss about with some props. After a while, she gets up and has audience members help gaffatape boxes and cardboard ‘armour’ onto her body before selecting someone to be her Sancho Panza and heading off for an “adventure”.
This involvement of the audience is crucial to Don Quijote’s success and isn’t in the least gimmicky or naff. Cooper and Frankland slowly unravel the story and legend of Cervantes’ work, giving us tiny scraps of information – literally and metaphorically – so that we may build meaning as the show progresses. After explaining that the book was actually two books and that the second was actually written in response to a forged Volume II, the whole authenticity and truth of the show is challenged and everything – from the story “Anton” (actually Carlos Otero) tells us about showering petals on pupils to the tales of eight ‘real-life’ Don Quijote’s – sits on the halfway point between truth and reality.
And that’s kind of the point. As we’re told towards beginning, the story is one about “maximum dreaming” and the way in which an imagined world can impact upon the real one. Unlike Andrew Haydon’s “inner-Žižek”, I don’t see this as perpetuating a kind of distorted “Rand-ianism” (though I may have misinterpreted his argument here somewhat). In fact, in The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, even Žižek acknowledges the need to imagine differently before we can act differently. Yes, we need alternative forms of socio-economic structure, and yes, imagining and dreaming isn’t enough. But it’s a start.
In fact, it’s worth quoting Žižek’s thoughts on Occupy here as he says some interesting stuff about dreaming and protest:
The protesters are not communists, if Communism refers to the
system which deservedly collapsed in 1990. The only sense in which they are communists is that they care about the commons—the commons of nature, of knowledge—which are threatened by the system. They are dismissed as dreamers, but the real dreamers are those who think that things can go on indefinitely the way they are, with just a few cosmetic adjustments. Far from being dreamers, they are waking from a dream that has turned into a nightmare. They are not destroying anything, but reacting to a system in the process of
gradually destroying itself. The protesters are simply calling on those in power to look down into the abyss opening up beneath their feet.
He then goes on to demonstrate that, as protest is often viewed by those in power as a “harmless moralistic gesture”, the perpetual thinking anew must remain at the centre of resistance.
Interestingly, there’s a bit in Don Quijote which – via the medium of Powerpoint – suggests that the choice between continuing blindly as we are and asking for things to be a different is the choice between “almost certain failure” and “taking ownership of that failure”. And though that sounds like a fairly depressing and pessimistic notion, the context of the show makes it feel like a hopeful one, and not just because moments later we’re showered in a blizzard of shredded Cerventes. That idea of “ownership” is an important one, as ultimately that’s what anyone who feels any inkling of resistance to the status quo is asking for.
Another thing: there’s a bit in the show when Keir Cooper dresses up in a monkey costume to, supposedly, “answer any question” posed by the audience, and I’ve only just got the joke. He’s a performing monkey. Which is, obviously, what we’re all in danger of becoming. (I know that’s not exactly subtle, but the gag passed me by until today). Frankland tells us that this monkey knows a lot about the past and a bit more about the present, but can’t answer questions about the future as he’s “not a fortune teller”. And none of us are, obviously. But if we take “ownership” over the present, doesn’t this at the very least entitle us to demand something from the future? It’s what Don Quijote did. He dreamt big, asked more of the world and went on a quest. Breaking free from the confines of this almost erratically simple show, that idea balloons into something massive and gives us confidence in the radical potential of maximum dreaming.
Photo: from tomfrankland.co.uk