The existentialists have taken over the asylum as Panta Rei Theatre seeks to explore the boundaries of madness through the characters of Don Quixote and Hamlet.
It may be modernist but it’s not new. Russian novelist Turgenev contrasted the pair in a paper presented in 1860, although his focus was more on the fact that people live by ideals of what they believe is good, seeing Hamlet as egotistical and Don Quixote as self-sacrificing.
While a thread of that runs through this somewhat warped production, the main weft seems pulled by Miguel de Unamuno’s “Our Lord Don Quixote”, with his philosophical reflections on life and thought, reason, and the tragedy of death.
Cue the gravediggers from Hamlet who have bodies to prepare but take time out to clown around while discoursing on the meaning of life, death and everything in between. Stumbling into the graveyard and colliding with this world are Don Quixote and his faithful squire Sancho Panza. Don Quixote has fallen into the imaginary world of fiction and, believing himself to be a real knight-errant, sets out on a chivalrous quest for his “princess”, Dulcinea.
And so we set off on a quixotic journey to seek truth and justice through a fantastical landscape as viewed through the eyes of our Ingenious Gentleman.
There are some lovely effects as ordinary objects are transformed into chimerical beings, bringing his fevered world to life. The performances are strong and the device of having Don Quixote speak Spanish with Sancho translating is a good one, echoing the fact that only he can mediate on the knight’s behalf with the outside world prior to his amusing return to sanity. The notion of comparing the texts (written at around the same time) and looking at ideas of madness is not unreasonable, even if both provide sufficient clues that it is at least partly feigned.
The production is at its most successful when embracing the idea of the importance of literature (and theatre) in brightening otherwise dull lives. However, it seems to forget that the purpose of even the classics was to amuse the largest possible number of readers.
There is too much meandering metaphysical musing and naval gazing to make this truly satisfying. While some might delight in taking their “mind on a holiday” as one of the characters suggests, audience members without knowledge of the source of the ideas may find themselves lost in this absurdist world.
“Too much sanity may be madness,” as Don Quixote would have it, and perhaps there is a little too much rationality here.
Show Times: Runs to 27 August 2012 (not 21); 5.25 pm.
Ticket Prices: £9 (£7.50) – 15-16, 20, 22-23,27 August. £10 (£8.50) other dates.