Theatre review: Don Quixote in Algiers, White Bear Theatre

Forget Don Quixote’s chivalrous adventures, this Don Quixote is a dramatic account of author’s Miguel de Cervantes’ time in jail after he was captured as an enemy soldier.

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Rachel Summers as Zohra and Alvaro Flores as Miguel (c) Kwaku Kyei

 

Miguel de Cervantes, the man behind one of the greatest novels of all time, spent five years as a prisoner of the Ottoman Empire at a time when southern Europe and northern Africa were intwined in war and bound in shared recent history.

Don Quixote was captured in Algeria during the Battle of Lepanto in 1575 by Barbary pirates and was finally ‘freed’ in 1580 after he was ransomed by Trinitarian friars.

It was during those years languishing in an Algerian prison cell that Cervantes had the germ of Don Quixote de la Mancha that he would write on his return to Spain in the early 17th century.

Don Quixote in Algiers loosely collates these events and ties them together with a big thread of fiction and a dash of religious and cultural tension, every bit as relevant today as it was in the latter days of the 16th century. The play is set in Algeria which was, in 1578, a regency of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish base for fighting the Spanish in the western Mediterranean, and a fuse point for Islamic-Christian fighting.

Spanish captive Miguel (Álvaro Flores) is an intense, brooding figure, scribbling madly on paper that is quickly discarded. His Trinitarian friar is a local merchant called Si Ali who pays Miguel’s ransom so he can help him translate records into Spanish – a ruse for his real use, to act as his spy in the shadowy city.

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Fanos Xenofos as the merchant Si Ali and Rachel Summers as his wife Carmen. (c) Kwaku Kyei 

Miguel’s presence soon intoxicates Si Ali’s daughter Zohra (Rachel Summers), who is as much a prisoner as Miguel, unable to leave the house except on rare trips where she must  be accompanied by a guardian. If she cannot escape her fate, she is destined to marry one of the dull men her father considers a suitable match.

Zohra’s imagination is sparked not just by the mysterious Miguel, but by her step-mother Carmen (Polly Nayler), a Spaniard captured by the Turks and sold to Si Ali. Her tales of growing up in a convent inspire Zohra to become a nun, although she has no interest in converting to Christianity, she simply wants time to read away from would-be suitors.

Will Miguel be her knight in tattered prison clothes as they plot to escape to Spain on a hole-riddled boat to Europe?

The atmosphere is as dense and claustrophobic as a prison cell thanks to designer Natalie Jackson’s clever set and Dinah Mullen’s constant, doom-laden soundtrack that gets under your skin.

Dermot Murphy’s script is a tangled web of intrigue where reality is as blurred as identity – and trust is as much a fugitive as Miguel. The production starts off strongly, aided by some great acting and clever direction, becomes rather bloated towards the end, where the narrative is derailed by heavy handed symbolism and overwrought dramatic devices.

But on the whole, the Condor Theatre Company punches above its weight within the small confines of the White Bear Theatre. Fanos Xenofós is a stand out as an exceptional Si Ali – composed, considered, his performance is grounded and warm – which perhaps the disparate ending of this production could have done more with.

 Don Quixote in Algiers | White Bear Theatre, SE11 | Until 4 March 2017