September 08, 2004

I had the good fortune, this past weekend, to experience simultaneously both a "real" summer weekend - almost the last possible in a season that was becoming notorious for its lack of sunshine and its overall lack of intense heat, if not corresponding lack of stickiness - and one of the best performances (in any genre) I have seen in years.

Man of La Mancha has something of a history with me, for it is one of those pieces I have kept trying and trying to see in a live performance. I have memorised the soundtrack. I have read the script, as well as the novels which inspired it. I have seen the film which had been made of it. Yet each time a performance arose in my vicinity, something would come up at the last moment to keep me from it, ranging from sudden deadlined out-of-town obligation to avalanche to accidental pesticide poisoning (another person's, not mine - but I was the one with them in the hospital).

This time, two of us were gifted with matinée tickets for the very last day of the play's run and the hour's transportation to a small summer theatre place - really a converted barn - a few minutes away from one of the region's most popular beaches. (The musical actually additionally qualified as research with both of us, for reasons no academic institution would recognise.) Perhaps predictably, after a summer of sun deprivation, the beaches were full, while the cool, darkened theatre was two-thirds empty.

I think I got the better end of that deal.

(Then again, the last time I decided to take advantage of that beach and those waters, I learned first-hand just how agriculture-polluted they were: and myself spent the next week trying to rid myself of that particular variant of E. coli. The waters were warm and wavy, with waved sandbarred beach sloping very, very gradually out to a kilometre and more before it finally became too deep to stand: but perhaps I have lost something of the resistance I once had in these matters; or else the place has become more polluted than it once was. Or else again the agriculture in the area has altered in its nature - but that would be for another entry, if I am ever to complete this one.)

It was the first performance piece I have experienced in far too long where a professional cast in fact lived up to the expectations I have for a professional cast, and surpassed them. The musicians, the singing, the acting, the directing so effective its overt indications were invisible against the flow of the play unless one knew what to look for: all were superlative, in that way that suggests extended silence before applause, and another extended silence after while the nuances settle in at their own pace. Man of La Mancha is a very easy script to over- or under-perform: as one reviewer noted, the songs were composed for stronger singing voices than most modern actors have been trained into. This production understood the script, understood the demands of the music, understood the space in which it was to be performed, and fitted each to the other as close to perfectly as I can conceive. If there was a weak point in the entire production, I did not notice it.

Afterwards, walking out, I felt privileged to have been able to participate in it.

In 1965, when the script was originally written, a backlash against the Age of Reason was beginning to take root, a backlash which demanded that Cervantes' 1604 original Don Quixote be re-invented into something it perhaps was not originally intended to be. With something as multi-layered as the original novel, it would not be extreme to suggest that it would approach impossibility to know how the author intended the work to be received. At best, we can only know the manner in which the author chose to present it, as undermining the influence of those "vain and empty books of chivalry" (the degree of intended irony in this statement forever to be unknowable); know the religious and political environment into which this seed was dropped; and know that its publication did indeed mark a clear ending to further publications of chivalric romances.

Yet somewhere between 1965 and 2004, the hegemonic superpower of the world which spawned the original musical seems to have acquired a renewed faith in a truth inherent to facts, and to canon, and to objective, independently verifiable reality.

I wonder: would a script, rendered of the novel today in complete ignorance of the earlier musical, still require the urgent "improvisation" amending Cervantes' original ending in order to be popularly acceptable?

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