Review: Life is a Dream, Donmar Warehouse

“Is the craft of our mind’s eye so skilful in its artistry, the fake becomes the thing itself?”

Written in 1635 by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, La Vida Es Sueño is considered one of the most significant plays in Spanish literature and enjoys a stature similar to Hamlet. It is presented here at the Donmar Warehouse in a new translation and version by Helen Edmundson and entitled Life is a Dream. Despite being nearly 500 years old, its central issues of the nature of reality and the possibilities of freedom in a cruel world have a remarkably current feel.

Set in Poland, the play focuses on Segismundo, played here by Dominic West, the young heir to the throne who has spent his life imprisoned in a tower because omens foretold that he would one day overthrow his father, the king. Given the chance to prove fate wrong and released into court, the prince lives up to his savage reputation and so is swiftly returned to jail where he is persuaded that all he thought he saw was a dream, hence the title. When he is then released a second time, events take a different turn as Segismundo has matured and learned about the consequences of his actions, especially as a future king, but also he realises that if indeed life is a dream, then it should be lived to the full.

West is excellent here as Segismundo, equally convincing as the unsocialised animal unequipped to deal with freedom, crouching in his throne but also as the courtly heir to the throne his father so desperately wants him to be, with all the statesman-like froideur necessary in a king. Also superb was David Horovitch as the courtier who provides the link between the main plot and the sub-plot who dealt with his countless speeches of exposition with aplomb.

This version mainly uses blank verse with numerous long speeches (mainly in the first half) which threatened to slow down the action intolerably, but once the scene has been well and truly set, the pacing remained admirably swift. Helping this was a surprising amount of humour throughout the play, and not just from the designated clown, Clarin: Kate Fleetwood imbued her indignant Rosaura with a great humanity which frequently brought laugh-out-loud moments from a sub-plot that sometimes seemed a little unnecessary, hers was a cracking performance though.

As the aforementioned clown Clarin, Lloyd Hutchinson brings a great sense of levity to proceedings, with a very modern feeling comic turn, and I also enjoyed Rupert Evans’ preening Astolfo. The only disappointment for me was with Malcolm Storry’s King Basilio, a performance which I found to be underpowered and not quite regal enough.

Angela Davies’s design is starkly simple, with a highly effective back wall coated in gold leaf which shines to reflect the prevailing mood: sometimes a bright gold; sometimes an ominous deep red. The lighting by Neil Austin and Dominic Haslam’s eerie score also combine to create the requisite atmosphere of isolation needed for the prison scenes and indeed Segismundo’s dominant feelings.

This is a production which lives up to the Donmar’s usual high standard, and even when the play seems to be heading for a saccharine sweet happy ending, the final couple of twists leaves a sufficient ambiguity to make it bittersweet at best. And the final chilling image of a slumped chained prisoner is one which echoes earlier imprisonments, perhaps indicating that one man’s dream can be another man’s nightmare.

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