There is rarely a topic or theme that has yet to be explored by theatre, and it’s this explorative flexibility which inspired theatre collective Panta Rei to push the boundaries with new production Rocinante! Rocinante!, a theatrical investigation into mental health. Dealing with the stigmas attached to madness, Creative Director Chiara D’Anna hopes the production will “trigger questions and challenge preconceptions”.

The show takes inspiration from two iconic texts, Don Quixote and Hamlet, yet it is not merely a reconstruction of these stories. Panta Rei has deconstructed and analysed what makes these stories work on a fundamental level: “Shakespeare and Cervantes’ questions on the nature of life and death, dreams and reality provided a fantastic source of inspiration for us”. The texts are “used in a very unorthodox way. We took some characters and situations and we started playing freely with them, allowing ourselves to create our own material”. With a mixture of devised and original dialogue, the production actively tests the limits of theatre and literature. “We focused on these texts because they are some of the most inspiring and fascinating texts ever written on the boundaries between fantasy and reality, sanity and madness, life and death, not only in their words but in their style, too”. Clearly, this is a production, and a company, led by a true passion for theatre and, most importantly, for storytelling. “We simply fell in love with Don Quixote… an obsessive love. One of those that keeps you awake at night.”

For D’Anna, theatre is when “both performers and spectators play the game of ‘make believe’. It is a sort of gym for the mind. An excellent practice to exercise our imagination, not only our muscles.” A fitting ethos for a company whose name comes from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, which translates as “everything flows”. This fluidity has led to productions of various styles, from the physical theatre of Lilith Rain to the decadant, Venetian -inspired Masquerade. “The company aims for visceral and visually powerful live performances,” D’Anna explains. “We want to create imaginary worlds that can be inhabited by both actors and spectators”. It’s this relationship between actor and audience that enables the company to make the most of theatre’s possibilities for the imagination.

Nonetheless, the decision to stage the play as a promenade performance “provoked many challenges… more than expected artistically, technically and financially”. Learning to adapt to this style rather than fight it was problematic, but vital to allow the audience to follow the journey. Even when logistical concerns such as lighting and moving the audience are dealt with, the actors have to familiarise themselves with a new and unconventional setting, and “completely change their physical sequences in response to that”. D’Anna sums it up as a “demanding space, but the reward at the end is incredible. The first time we saw one light in the space we all felt a big relief. We really felt that we were creating an ‘all imaginary world’ in a room.”

Describing itself as a “surreal journey through a restless mind”, Rocinante! Rocinante! promises an immersive exploration of a marginalised and often generalised subject. This didn’t come without a sense of trepidation for the company. “We tried to avoid falling into the same traps and we tried to explore both sides of mental illness. The joyful and poetic aspect of it, as well as the tragic and dark side of being an outcast.” Two years in the making, the production has involved meticulous research to ensure its authenticity. While consulting with experts in psychiatry, psychology and history of medicine, the company also watched numerous films, documentaries and looked at paintings and pictures. “We contextualised our work by looking at the same topic from two perspectives: the Baroque time and the twenty-first century.” Crossing two eras, the production seeks to make mental health a relevant and approachable topic, generating conversation and breaking down the taboos around the subject.

To achieve this, Panta Rei has given familiar literary figures a new life. “Our characters are archetypes, in the sense that they represent specific values and ideologies rather than complex personalities”. But this has been no easy journey. The piece has dramatically changed since its conception, through a dynamic – and at times unusual – approach to rehearsals. Although adopting traditional techniques of warm-ups and character progression, the company also uses “various approaches in unorthodox ways, from Commedia dell’Arte to core training”. To spark inspiration, the rehearsal room is filled with “objects and images from the world of Cervantes and Shakespeare”. Then, as D’Anna puts it, “We start playing.”

To say Panta Rei is a hands-on company would be to underestimate its commitment to physicality. Whether addressing character development or the production as a whole, it maintains a visceral approach. D’Anna explains, “Working with objects is a pivotal part of our work. We play with these objects as children and Don Quixote would do: they can be anything and their function and meaning can change in different moments throughout the improvisation.” From this malleable approach to rehearsals has developed a definite individual style. Rocinante! Rocinante! is a surreal piece and D’Anna describes how “the original idea started with an image: a cemetery at night. Then a horse skull followed (Rocinante is Don Quixote’s horse) because I found one which inspired me. All the scenes can be seen as a collection of images. A dream, a flash-back or a visual hallucination.” There is a nod here to the work of the Dutch artist, Hieronymus Bosch, famed for his complex depictions of religion and morality. D’Anna confesses, “my idea since the beginning was to utilise Bosch consistently throughout the piece. He has influenced our work since the very beginning.”

Not content with producing an ambitious show, the company also participate in Don Quixote’s World Project, providing interdisciplinary workshops in schools and universities on both theatre and mental illness in order “to promote tolerance amongst young people, utilising Don Quixote as a starting point to explore the figure of the ‘outcast’ throughout history. The work developed with the students made us aware of the stigma attached to ‘mental illness’.” D’Anna advises, “I think that the only two important qualities a company needs are perseverance and honesty. Always work with honesty.” Panta Rei’s commitment is a cultural and social one, exploring relevant issues with an individual approach that informs, educates and ultimately impresses. What of the audience – what will they go home with? “To leave as if they had just awoken from a dream. Dreams can leave a strong impact on us and we can feel very emotional throughout the day as if the images, people and situations within the dream kept haunting us throughout the day… or for years.”

Panta Rei presents Rocinante! Rocinante! at the CLF Cafe, Bussey Building, Peckham until 2 March. For more information and tickets, visit the website.

Image credit: Panta Rei