Phrases which Little Soldier uses to describe its work emphasises a crossover between humour and drama: “Life imitates art in the most tragic way” (Pakita); “Funny yet touching” (You and Me); “Joy, pain and ultimate wisdom”. That final pull-quote comes from a description of its latest show, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, which takes its passion for mixing the comic and the tragic to a whole new level as it attempts to stage Cervantes’s mammoth novel using only three actors and a musician. It’s a big ask, but the company is sure it can be done.
In many ways, the journey of Don Quixote and his friendly squire Sancho Panza mimics that of Patricia Rodríguez and Mercè Ribot, the two Spanish artists who together form Little Soldier. Chatting to Ribot on the phone during a break from final frantic Fringe preparations, she explains to me that the pair feel a strange affiliation with Don Quixote’s journey. The novel’s consideration of “friendship and achieving dreams whilst having someone next to you” feels particularly close to their hearts as they make work far away from home.
The show began its life as a “crazy idea” formed over a bottle of wine, but was initially cast aside until the duo were “more established as a company” due to its scale. As Spaniards, however, something in their heritage drew them towards it, so that once other options had been exhausted, they “just went for it”. Ribot explains that the show “is a bit of a ‘Quixote Project’, where all the odds are against you as you try to tackle 900 pages and 160 characters with three actors and a musician.”
Joined on stage by Told By An Idiot associate Stephen Harper, the pair’s take on Don Quixote’s story is told with emphasis on “physicality and visual humour”, and is “essentially a clown show”. Just like the original novel, the show incorporates multiple styles and forms. In one of the book’s chapters, for example, Cervantes stops the scene due to an apparent loss of a script, “then in another chapter he talks to the reader, so there are lots of different layers as he talks about you, about the story, about writing the book. And we try to do this – to put all of these levels into the show.” Halfway through the piece, Ribot and Rodríguez take a break to “transgress a little” and talk to the audience about what the hell is going on.
It wasn’t always that way. Early last year, the pair presented a scratch of the performance at the Blue Elephant in London, when the show was called The Knight of the Sorrowful Figure. “At that time we wanted to go really far from the book,” Ribot explains. “We wanted to talk about friendship and dreams and reality, and to relate it to our journey into England to make theatre, because the story reflects ourselves a little bit.” After playing with structure and form for a while, however, it became clear that these things could be discussed with closer adherence to the source material, hence the change in title. “We also wanted to put our stamp on it as a company because we like to play with the extremes of tragedy and comedy, and this book has it all – the tragedy of a man who sees what is not there and also the ridiculousness of the whole situation. And there’s this thing about friendship which is also underscoring the whole piece.”
Does their cultural heritage come into play in this production? “Oh, totally,” responds Ribot immediately, “It’s part of our DNA. We’ve been in England for a long time, and most of the team is English, but it appears in the show because we always want to think about personal stories. We’ve put some Spanish into it, some Spanish songs and Spanish folklore, and I think that all these cultural references enrich the piece. We don’t shy away from it. So it’s trying to incorporate that and being very honest about who we are and where we come from, but also embracing our English culture too.”
Though Cervantes wrote his tale 400 years ago, Little Soldier is adamant that it’s a “really modern book”. For those of us working in theatre, Ribot believes, it speaks to a particular mindset about imagination and the future: “those of us who work in the arts are dreamers most of the time – we set ourselves these crazy tasks and really believe we can achieve them.” Beneath all this, too, is a beautiful tale of friendship, and Ribot stresses that the audience is at the heart of what they do. “We want to take you wish us and have loads of fun with it. That’s what the Fringe is about – taking risks and having fun.”
The Ingenious Gentle Don Quixote of La Mancha is at Zoo at the Edinburgh Fringe from 1 – 25 August. For more information and tickets, visit the EdFringe website.