On Thursday night as the final members of the audience took their seats in the Swan and the acting company were waiting in their beginners positions, a tall man in modern day dress stepped onto the stage.
"Good evening everyone!" The audience fell silent, aware that this was unusual. Something was wrong.
"I'm Angus Jackson, the Director of Don Quixote. Now, we've been doing a lot with this play since we arrived here in the Swan. But the one thing we haven't done...is a dress rehearsal."
If there was a production that one would hope to have a dress rehearsal for, it was this one. Every member of the company has around 10 different costumes in the show, ranging from a dirtied up galley slave in chains to a duchess in full farthingale, corset, ruff and fan. The dressers have 59 quick changes to do in total. There are most certainly another 59 un-quick changes (which mean the actor has at least three minutes to get into his/her costume).
In terms of set changes we the company are quite literally building Don Quixote's world around him. We are creating the castles he conquers, the knights he vanquishes (on their steeds) the damsels in distress he rescues, the giants/windmills he defeats. There are trapdoors, harnesses, ropes. Ropes in my hands that hold award winning actors' lives at the end of them. (Not actually, there are wires controlled by big burly men in the flies, it's just made to look like it's me. Sort of.)
There are 19 'musical moments' in the show, lots with complicated harmonies or group dances. I like to think of the show as being like a really classy Disney movie dream/nightmare, after a big hallucinogenic night out. An actor's most common dream/nightmare is standing on stage in front of an audience not knowing what happens next, or what your next line is, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or not being there at all. All those things were about to happen as we put the show all together for the first time. In front of 400 people.
Don Quixote is about adventures and heroics. We were all heroes on Thursday night. And Tim Speyer and Nick Lumley had an adventure. They got locked in a corridor backstage on the third floor as they tried to find their way back from hanging a sign on the musicians gallery. They were due to catch David Threlfall in a staged fall as Don Quixote returns from one of his early battles. In full armour. David waited to be caught. Tim and Nick did not appear. We saw our stage manager Pip running backstage. Fast. I heard a dresser exclaim "Shit! Pip never runs! What's happened?!". Malcom our fight director has choreographed David's fall so that Tim and Nick actually take very little weight and David is entirely in control of how he lowers himself to the ground (the magic of theatre). David elongated his stage stumble with the Threlfall comic genius we have come to know and waited to be caught. Still Tim and Nick did not arrive. The other actors in the scene thought about going to catch David themselves, David thought about lowering himself to the ground without them, but then at the last moment, like the climax of a Richard Curtis movie, Tim Speyer and Nick Lumley ran onto stage into their positions. David was caught. Tim and Nick had made enough noise shouting and banging on the door of the corridor that someone had come to their rescue.
Other heroics included John Cummins running on stage to carry off a bookcase when the original bookcase carrier got stuck in a costume and couldn't make it. I heroically managed to smash both the wooden horse and the wooden donkey into the brick walls of the Swan stage. The backstage area was full of people stage whispering 'What the f*ck is next??!' To each other. Somebody would supportively stage whisper back something that might help that person. Stage managers would throw whole trees or enormous bits of armour into our sweaty palms, hats would be shoved on our heads a second before running on stage, puppet sheep would leg it in a herd down corridors.
Concentrating solely on getting costumes on and off and carrying the right bits of scenery on and off meant that without realising it, I found myself standing centre stage in front of a full house delivering James Fenton's beautiful and impassioned speech as Marcela, accompanied by an off the shoulder Tess of the D'Urbervilles shepherdess dress and long flowing blonde wig. A moment where my dreams of being both a Shakespearian heroine and a Disney princess were combined to become a reality for ten or so minutes. Not every day that happens. Five or six costume changes later I found myself on stage singing the most stunning melody, written by Grant Olding, to express my fears as a pregnant peasant girl, of losing my unrequited love and possibly my life, in childbirth. As I walked off stage at the end of my song I realised I had just sung a solo in a musical. I could now die happy.
We waded our way through comic camp courtiers and growling prisoners and puppet babies. Sometimes it felt sticky, sometime it felt easy and joyous. What was amazing was that the majority of the audience were with us and laughing with us and at us, willing us to do well with the odds stacked against us. At the curtain call it felt like we had achieved our aim, to take the audience on Don Quixote's epic journey as we manufactured it around him, for him, for the first time ever.
Backstage everyone hugged and laughed and high-fived and whooped and hugged again. We had done it. We had reached the unreachable star and dreamed the impossible dream. We had brought back the golden age of chivalry to Spain, to Don Quixote, to the Swan audience. In our own weird and chaotic and wonderful way.