A big-hearted musical that amply fills the Coliseum's sizeable stage
This Tony Award-winning musical by the Jewish creative team of Mitch Leigh, Joe Darion and Dale Wasserman is as much about the story of writer Miguel de Cervantes, as of his most famous creation Don Quixote. Cervantes was tried by the Spanish Inquisition for the Jewish blood in his family and, indeed, the action here has him thrown into prison with his manservant to await trial. This, though, is no 16th-century dungeon, but a modern prison, incarcerating "enemies of society" from criminals to dissidents, in a regime not unlike General Franco’s. A self-styled Governor presides over a pecking order of inmates, instituting a makeshift ‘court’ to try Cervantes, giving him his only chance of protecting the enticing trunk of worldly goods he’s brought with him from his light-fingered fellow inmates.
The main butt of their mocking curiosity is his unfinished novel Don Quixote. He's forced to recruit them to help him act it out in his defence and so he himself transforms into the deluded 'knight errant’ and his manservant into the Don’s faithful Sancho Panza. Renowned American Jewish director Lonny Price marshals a fine cast in the named roles and the ENO’s huge chorus of ‘prisoners’. David White conducts the thrilling full sound of this 44-strong orchestra, dominated by brass and wind, and complete with four guitars.
Kelsey Grammer is warmly intelligent in the dual role of Cervantes and Don Quixote, engaging audience sympathy for the writer’s predicament and skilfully negotiating the occasionally maddening whimsy of his famed creation. It's sometimes hard to get past that whimsy, which is especially inappropriate when he seizes the brass shaving bowl of an itinerant barber unfortunate enough to run into him, claiming it's the "golden helmet of Mambrino" that renders its wearer invincible, thus stealing the man’s livelihood. But Grammer’s interpretation of this ardent optimist wins through, especially interpreting the iconic ballad 'The Impossible Dream'.
Peter Polycarpou is a natural shoo-in for the loyal servant, his voice blending with his master’s, as supportive in his singing as in his service. Danielle de Niese as the horribly abused and embittered serving wench and prostitute gives a standout performance, incandescent in her defiant fury directed at the men, whose violent, contemptuous use of her is genuinely disturbing. In her flame-coloured rags (stunning detailed costumes by Fotini Dimou), she is a poster girl for an early incarnation of the #MeToo generation (#YoTambién!) with a voice at once glorious and heartbreaking, especially when she begins to accept the Don’s gallant respect for the woman he idolises as Dulcinea.
Nicholas Lyndhurst has fun in the dual roles of drily ironic Governor and obliging Innkeeper, while Eugene McCoy’s sinister prosecutor The Duke morphs into equally cynical Dr Carrasco. At times the chorus look uncomfortably crowded and static in James Noone’s stark prison setting, embellished by platforms on which to act out the fantastical tale; but the male chorus fully justify their numbers with a richly layered sound. In all it's a curiously episodic affair, but ultimately glorious in parts.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Manuel Harlan
Man of La Mancha runs until Saturday 8 June. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Wed & Sat only). £15-£125. London Coliseum, WC2N 4ES. 020 7845 9300. www.eno.org