Don Quixote: Man Of Clackmannanshire – a play about growing old in the 21st century

With their modern-day reimagining of Miguel de Cervantes’ 1615 novel, director Lu Kemp and writer Ben Lewis set out to challenge preconceptions about aging, writes Mark Fisher

Benny Young as Don in rehearsals for Don Quixote - Man of Clackmannanshire PIC: Alastair More
Benny Young as Don in rehearsals for Don Quixote - Man of Clackmannanshire PIC: Alastair More

The latest collaboration between Perth Theatre and Dundee Rep has had a slow gestation. The arrestingly titled Don Quixote: Man Of Clackmannanshire started life in 2014 as one of the Classic Cuts programmed by Glasgow's A Play, A Pie And A Pint. This series took famous works of literature and repackaged them for a tiny cast and a running time of less than an hour.

Lu Kemp, artistic director of Perth Theatre, fancied having a go at Don Quixote. In its original form, the 1615 novel by Miguel de Cervantes surpasses 900 pages as it tells an epic tale of a low-tier nobleman who sets out to prove the age of chivalry is not dead. With his down-to-earth companion Sancho Panza, he heads off on a vainglorious mission as a wandering knight. It could be idealism or just plain fantasy.

Drafting in playwright Ben Lewis, she staged a boiled-down version of the Spanish story that, for the sake of practicality, left most of the action offstage. The Scotsman said the three-actor show was "beautifully executed".

Director Lu Kemp in rehearsals for Don Quixote - Man of Clackmannanshire PIC: Alastair More

All these years later, Kemp felt she had unfinished business. She went back to Lewis and asked if he would like to write a full-length version, this time with two more actors, live flamenco music and the action no longer reported but back on stage. "There's a lot of playfulness in how we're doing it," says Lewis. "Because the book is such a crazy, wild, irreverent story, it feels like it demands to be adapted in an unconventional way."

The version now about to open in Dundee is set in a modern-day Scotland where Benny Young's Don Quixote tires of wasting his retirement watching television and resolves to get active. He recruits his garrulous young nephew Sandy, played by Sean Connor, and sets off in his mobility scooter.

"The idea of a hero's journey, especially for men, still persists," says Lewis. "He sees himself as a knight and he's looking for a monster. He doesn't know exactly what the monster is going to be, but he's determined to get out there and slay it."

Fed up feeling powerless in the face of climate breakdown and political sleaze, Don Quixote reimagines the shopping centres, Wetherspoons and wind farms of today's Scotland as sights worthy of a hero. All that is standing in his way is the prosaic threat of a social-care needs assessment.

Irene Macdougall in rehearsals for Don Quixote - Man of Clackmananshire PIC: Alastair More

"The world is in quite a state of chaos and we all feel it at the moment," says Kemp. "How do you even begin to address that? How do you take action? How do you do something definitive when everything feels grey, complex, webbed and enormous? There's something beautiful about the earnestness of saying, 'I will take action!' without a definitive knowledge of what action to take."

But it is not all fun and fantasy. Kemp and Lewis also have serious things to say – in particular about our neglect of the elderly. They call this Don Quixote a "coming-of-old-age" comedy. On its first run in Glasgow, Scotsman critic Joyce McMillan said it was about "an old man's quest for meaning and dignity at a time when his mind is falling apart". Kemp wants to challenge the assumption that people have little to contribute once they reach retirement age and less still as they near the end of their lives, what the director calls "the oldest old".

"The story of Don Quixote just seemed to fit really neatly into this thought of what it is to age well in our society now," says Kemp, who did extensive research into aging with biomedical experts for The Lounge, a 2016 production for theatre company Inspector Sands. "We've got used to the idea that you retire and you cease to be useful. But what are the possibilities in old age?"

Lewis, who acted in The Lounge, which was made with support from the Wellcome Trust, says the question kept coming up about how people spend the last years of their life. "It's this balance between freedom and safety," he says. "The freedom to do what they want and live their lives as they want, but then also being in a safe environment. The story of Don Quixote perfectly encapsulates that."

Nicole Sawyerr in rehearsals for Don Quixote - Man of Clackmananshire PIC: Alastair More

Kemp chips in: "One gerontologist put it beautifully. He said, 'What we want for the people we love is safety and what we want for ourselves is freedom.'"

Lewis adds: "There's this idea of an end-of-life crisis, which is what happens to Don Quixote. Our version is similar to what happens in the book. He's been absorbing an awful lot of content by sitting in his chair watching TV in his house on his own for decades and has lost any sense of agency. He feels powerless in the face of the world. He decides enough is enough and he is going to go forth, be a hero and play his part."

These ideas about age, agency and transformation are all mixed into a play that is comic in tone. It is also musical, with an Iberian score played live by flamenco musicians Paddy Anderson and Pablo Dominguez. "After lockdown, there was something extraordinary about coming together to hear live music," says Lewis. "To have everybody vibrating at the same frequency feels really important for this show."

"This play is so much about magical thinking," says Kemp. "It's about how you transform a moment, how you transform other people's vision of the world and how you transform the audience's idea of what aging is."

Don Quixote: Man Of Clackmannanshire is at Dundee Rep from 24 September until 15 October, and at Perth Theatre from 25 October until 5 November, see https://dundeerep.co.uk/ and https://www.horsecross.co.uk/