The RSC’s Don Quixote, originally staged at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon in 2016, emerged from the company’s 400th anniversary celebration of Shakespeare’s death. Spain’s father of the novel, Miguel de Cervantes, was born in 1547, making him 19 years Shakespeare’s senior. However, according to oft-repeated trivia, the two men died on the same day – 23 April 1616. Whether or not this is the case depends on whether you care about the differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars and other such things. Cervantes lived (from all we know of Shakespeare) a much more adventurous and difficult life than the man from Stratford, and he became internationally famous much earlier, with the novel becoming a best-seller in his lifetime, and Shakespeare probably read at least some of Quixote when co-writing his ‘lost’ play, Cardenio, with John Fletcher.

All of these connections (and many more) explain the RSC’s decision, as part of their 400th death-day celebrations in 2016, to commission an epic adaptation of Cervantes’s two-volume masterwork from poet James Fenton. Two years later, transferring to the Garrick Theatre, Angus Jackson’s production retains its twin leads: David Threlfall as Quixote and Rufus Hound as the most iconic of trusty squires, Sancho Panza.

These two are the linchpins of this production – they carry everything before them, especially Threlfall’s tender, beautiful and oil-painting-accurate depiction of the madman from La Mancha. This is as it must be since everything that happens in the story flows from Quixote’s ceaseless desire for chivalrous honour. The story cannot work unless the audience is similarly swept along by this blind, manic energy, and Threlfall radiates this in spades. The fact that his twirled mustachios and ragged beard, shaggy hair, gaunt frame, green stockings and scrappy armour have been beautifully rendered by those dressing and designing the production all helps, of course. The larger-than-life figure convinces us completely, draws us in, and charms us, and appears just like he does in our imagination. This is nothing to be taken lightly. As for Rufus Hound’s Sancho, he achieves his rapport with the audience through a great deal of pantomimic charm (improvised audience asides are very much a thing here) physical humour and sly wit. However, neither actor loses sight of the emotional core of their characters: in Threlfall’s performance, it is Don Quixote’s essential goodness, a naivety which modern people are supposed to laugh at, but which really pushes many of our buttons in a very moving and troubling mixture of feeling. For Hound, it is Sancho’s unfolding loyalty and respect for his master, as he rides behind him on his ass, trying to save him from sheep farmers or mean duchesses.

The two blazing leads are supported by a cast without a weak link, shifting smoothly from shepherds and peasants to noblemen to puppeteers. In a story so totally dominated by only two large personalities, the rest of the cast work wonderfully to shine lovely diamonds of hilarity and detail through the cracks. And the production is nothing if not multi-faceted. Spanish-flavoured songs intersperse the narrative – although it wouldn’t at all be correct to call the RSC’s adaptation a ‘musical’ – while Sancho’s aforementioned pantomime expands to food fights with the audience and plenty more physical humour. Some of this could definitely have been trimmed, but it never became overbearing. Puppetry designer and director Toby Olié’s work is certainly the added spice that works best, with beautifully-made lions, hilarious falcons and murdered sheep all featuring, wittily and winningly manipulated by the cast.

A word should be put in for Fenton’s lyrics to the songs, which were a personal highlight. Grant Olding’s lilting, almost a-temporal music perfectly fits the strangeness of Quixote’s world. This was especially the case with Threlfall’s strangely vulnerable, croaking speak-singing, which revealed more levels to his portrayal of the Don.

As you would expect from the RSC doing a period-appropriate Cervantes, costuming is varied and colourful, never drawing attention to itself while drawing you into the strange, magic world of the knight-errant. Robert Innes Hopkin’s design is never ornate and often beautifully straightforward, but a pleasure to behold. 

The RSC are definitely breaking no new ground. I wish that I could see a Quixote for today, retooled with modern (ahem) ‘tools’ like post-fact thinking, delusions of personal grandeur leading to social-media-built echo-chambers of belief and reinforcement, and so on and so on. Cervantes would have had a field day in 2018, that’s for sure. I wish I could see a really challenging, tough and contemporary Quixote. But that is a wish for another star, and if you sit back and let the RSC’s beautifully-wrought piece hit you, you won’t even have to worry about that. That’s something to be grateful for.

Don Quixote is playing at the Garrick Theatre until 2 February 2019. For more information and tickets, click here.