In Algiers between 1578 and 1580, Miguel de Cervantes (later the author of Don Quixote de La Mancha) was in custody. He had been a soldier who was captured by Barbary pirates and was being held captive in the city of Algiers until a ransom could be raised.
Cervantes was not held in a prison cell but in the home of Si Ali, for whom he carried out translation work. Álvaro Flores portrays Cervantes wonderfully and shows the character’s deteriorating mental state in this production.
Si Ali’s beautiful daughter Zohra is unhappy with her lot as a Muslim daughter, waiting to be forced into a marriage of her father’s choice. She, like Cervantes, is something of a dreamer. So, it is unsurprising that they become secret allies and potential escapees. Zohra is played by the beautiful and feisty Rachel Summers. Cervantes tries, unsuccessfully, to escape four times. At her pleading, Cervantes promises to take Zohra with him on his next attempt. But can they escape?
The play has an atmospheric set designed by Natalie Jackson with pages of written text strewn around in crumpled piles. There is an evocative drum and hand clapping music by Dinah Mullen playing in the background between scenes.
The play has fine acting and an intriguing premise. It should have been an enlightening view of a piece of little known literary history, but it fails. It fails because the story lacks clarity and leaves you with more questions than answers. It is slow paced and the text is confusing and fragmented. Is the Cervantes character an amalgam of the writer and his most famous subject, Don Quixote? That might explain his eccentric attitude, his chaste relationship with the beautiful Zohar and why sometimes he is referred to as Senior Don Quixote by the other characters.
If all the storylines had been completed then this would have been so much better. Why is the play called Don Quixote in Algiers, why not Cervantes in Algiers? Historically Don Quixote wasn’t even written at that point. Why does Cervantes scribble on sheets of paper then throw them into an enormous heap on the floor? Why does he resist doing his Spanish translations which is all Si Ali requires of him and why does he walk around in a perpetual dream?
Perhaps the most vexing question is, what is an urbane wealthy Muslim man, such as Sri Ali doing guarding a man who has been kidnapped by Barbary pirates? At the end of the performance everyone (myself included) looked a little mystified at what they had just seen.
Reviewed by Graham Archer
Photo: Kwaku Kyei
Don Quixote in Algiers plays at The White Bear Theatre until 4 March 2017