Theatre Review | 2019
"One could feel the pain and humanity that we just witnessed. Lonny Price did not hold back and neither did his cast who ensured ever moment, connection, the feeling was felt and was real."
MAN OF LA MANCHA | Dir. Lonny Price | London Coliseum TICKETS
Musical theatre revivals are nothing new on the West End but the journey that this new production of MAN OF LA MANCHA has been through is worthy of an epic musical of its own. Since there has not been a production in London since the late 1960s the biggest task of bringing this show back to the West End has meant the creative team have had to think big. One of the unique aspects however about this revival is how salient the central narrative of MAN OF LA MANCHA truly is and how a contemporary audience will find a connection to it.
Miguel de Cervantes, Kelsey Grammer, and his manservant, Peter Polycarpou, have been brought to a makeshift prison in the basement of a museum awaiting trial. As the prisoners begin to ransack his belongings he pleads with the leader of the prisoners The Governor, Nicholas Lyndhurst, to save his manuscript. The Governor allows Cervantes to defend himself in the form a play which is to be led by Cervantes, his manservant and his fellow prisoners. In doing show Cervantes gives the prisoners something they had thought was long lost, hope.
Many years ago when the Quantum Leap television series was still broadcast on terrestrial television I came across CATCH A FALLING STAR (1979) which has stayed with me ever since. In this episode, Sam, Scott Bakula, leaps into the body of an actor whom he must stop from falling during the production of Man of La Mancha. My exposure to American musicals at this point was limited to ANNIE but there was something within this episode that stuck with me. As Sam sings Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote) the words spoke to me in a way that even now I can not truly explain and for 20 years I have never explored it until now.
Though the source material might feel at times a little dated one can not deny the saliency and power that MAN OF LA MANCHA still has. In our contemporary political discourse, whether it is the UK (Brexit), US (Trump) or Spain (Catalan Independence) there is a fight for justice, for change and for the voiceless to be given their voices. It is a fantasy to assume that we can make a difference or that we can solicit change from the state but without this fantasy, we do not have hope and without hope, we have no humanity.
Bold but never invasive MAN OF LA MANCHA manages to avoid being too in your face but at the same time, it takes the audience on a real soul searching journey. James Noone’s set is imposing and yet still manages to convey a sense of fear, claustrophobia and intimacy. This is further complemented by Rick Fisher’s lighting which forms a perfect marriage to Noone’s set as the dankness of the prisoners' reality in this pit of hell radiates from the stage. Though the central theatre design doesn’t change much the props used throughout the production to give it a fresh face during each of the scenes within Cervantes play. Each time we break away from his tale the audience is dragged back to to the hopeless reality of the prisoners' situation.
Cervantes, through his story of Don Quixote, gives his fellow prisoners the hope they have been denied. He shows them that dreaming is not something that they should stop and he shows them that by believing in justice and ‘in righting wrongs’ they can reclaim and retain their humanity. It is the gift of human perseverance that is one of our most powerful tools (and which Cervantes embodies to well) that we have and if we do not allow that to be broken then the state can not break us.
The biggest strengths within this production lay at the feet of the four central characters led by Grammer who is surprisingly subtle and genuine in his delivery of Cervantes/Quixote and seems to have stopped himself from being to dominate. This is a rare generosity that works well against the humour and the occasional campy undertone in the text which creates this sense of the justice that Cervantes expunges. By refusing to go big Grammer has allowed the audience to connect with Cervantes and with what he is saying and what he is hoping to achieve from his fellow prisoners.
This becomes first evident when The Governor and Cervantes meet for the first time. In each of their meetings Grammer and Lyndhurst as Cervantes and The Governor create a realness that is always emotional and urgent. One can see instantly how much this means to The Governor and his willingness to support Cervantes in his trial/play shows an underlining desire to rid himself of the mundane reality of the situation they are in. As the only thing that The Governor holds over Cervantes is his manuscript there is a moment that The Governor sees Cervantes as something more than a prisoner. This look at times that Lyndhurst has on his face throughout these interactions with Cervantes is more heartfelt than they first appear.
The relationships are key to the success of MAN OF LA MANCHA and the purity of conviction between Cervantes/Quixote and Aldonza/Dulcinea, Danielle de Niese, is a wonder to behold. There is a sympathetic understanding that de Niese has given her characters which make her interaction with Cervantes/Quixote even more inspired. As a character, Aldonza gains instant sympathy from the audience and there is something heartbreaking in how Cervantes is so convinced that this serving woman and a part-time prostitute is, in fact, Dulcinea, a gentlewoman. The power of de Niese voice is matched by the grace she delivers her characters and the ease de Niese embodies the complexity of Aldonza.
"The power of Patel’s voice as he sings The Psalm fills you with a resounding sense of joy and heartbreak in equal measure."
Creating these moments that seem real, that feels genuine is hard in theatre and harder still when the material is as complex as this. But de Niese masterfully raises to the challenge and one feels her anger and distaste for the life that she has. Aldonza represents the prisoners who get to see themselves and the chance and opportunities that hope can bring. Aldonza is confused that Quixote would think that she is a gentlewoman and yet his insistence places her in danger because each time they speak Quixote fills her heart with hope. Hope that she can be loved, hope that she would not be subjected to the life she has, hope that there is some other reality than the one she has now. As Aldonza confronts Quixote after being raped she does not hold back her anger and frustration at what he has done to her and how it makes her feel.
And it is this confrontation or realisation that leads to Quixote mental decline as it is this moment that the Knight of the Mirrors, Eugene McCoy, appears. Quixote is now forced to take a look at himself and for the ‘fool’ he is. Quixote decline is not nice and as the darkness of the stage is only really illuminated by the large odd shaped mirrors which add a great deal of confusion to Quixote and the audience alike. Here Cervantes tells the court that the play is over the mild revolt from the prisoners and The Governor becomes a clear indication of the investment they have put into this which leads to the final scene in Quixote story.
This penultimate scene reduces the wildness of the preceding scenes to one's distant memory. The craziness of the play is stripped bare and dutifully ensures that the investment from characters, actors and audience will be played with purity if it to be believed. A tableau is created by the Padre, Minal Patel, who kneels at Cervantes bedside as he is dying with Antonia, Lucy St Louis, Dr Carrasco, McCoy and Cervantes’ manservant, Polycarpou looking on. There is a gentleness, comfort and love within the scene that could have lasted for ten minutes which would have retained the audience's attention throughout. The power of Patel’s voice as he sings The Psalm fills you with a resounding sense of joy and heartbreak in equal measure.
As the sound of the stairs indicates to the prisoners they need to move the effect and of this scene cannot be understated. One could feel the pain and humanity that we just witnessed. Lonny Price did not hold back and neither did his cast who ensured ever moment, connection, the feeling was felt and was real.
Giving someone hope is the greatest gift anyone can give you and Cervantes does exactly that, he gives his fellow prisoners hope. He shows them that dreaming isn’t something that they should stop and he shows them that though they are facing a great inhuman treatment at the hands of the jailers they are still human. It is the gift of human perseverance that is our most powerful tool and if we do not allow that to be broken then the state can not break us.
There is saying ‘never meet your heroes’ as there is always the chance they won’t be as nice as you expect them to be. In the past, I have wanted to see shows that I have had some connection with but have resisted because I don’t want my illusions to be shattered. I knew there was a risk that MAN OF LA MANCHA might not be what I was expecting based on an old childhood memory but I was not just mistaken I was pleasantly surprised by this production. This is a production of class that tackles the complexities of a revered American musical and delivered something unexpected, powerful and unforgettable.