Life is a Dream is at The Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh from 29 October to 20 November and this production of Pedro Calderón’s play from 1635, translated by Jo Clifford and directed by Wils Wilson has with it a highly skilled and creative team that should ensure its success in 2021. Why then do I have some reservations, why for me is Life is a Dream not ticking all the boxes on my checklist? Maybe my negatives are just purely personal ones, but for the moment, l want to concentrate on the positive aspects of this production.
Reviewing anything (theatre, music, arts) is always for me a learning curve, there is always some new information that I come away with, and learning from the theatre brochure that Pedro Calderón himself would probably have been no stranger to theatres being closed in his lifetime due to outbreaks of plague in Spain made for me a clear understanding of why this work would be the first on-stage production from The Lyceum theatre since it, along with many other venues across the world, was forced to close its doors due to a modern 21st century “plague”. Perhaps more than many other writers, Ped Calderón would have understood the helplessness that you can feel when events are totally outside of any control that you can exert over them.
This translation by Jo Clifford was first performed in 1998, and this new production, as already said, is rich in creative talents and with a cast of Singer/Musician - Nerea Bello, Astolpho - Dyfan Dwyfor, Soldier - Krystian Godlewski, Estrella - Kelsey Griffin, Clarin - Laura Lovemore, Clotado – John Macaulay, Segismundo - Lorn Macdonald, Rosaura - Anna Russell-Martin, and Basilio - Alison Peebles, there is no doubt as to the dramatic presentation of this work. Alison Peebles is impressive as the Queen and Lorn Macdonald at times very unsettling in his ability to so easily switch from a deeply contemplative to more beast inside than human Prince Segismundo.
Perhaps one of my problems is that this is really two works within one. The core elements here are of course in the title Life is A Dream, and how many of us have at one time or another not felt those lines between real life and dreams merging, or at least getting a little too close to one another? How many of us have questioned if we are looking into the mirror or out of the mirror? These are timeless observations on the very concept of human consciousness that probably will never be fully answered. The idea that life or dream, does it matter as long as you try to do good in either, is also an important message here. The second story line running through this one of love, honour, revenge, mistaken identity, arranged marriages (and more) is complex, and very much of its period, and although all of this was to become a standard set of scenarios in European Opera of the time, this particular adaptation of the story was just not engaging me that much. What was interesting however was Lorn Macdonald giving us an insight into a man who was, because of the only treatment that he had ever known as a human being, almost stripped of that humanity and at times more of a savage beast inside.
This work is performed on an extended stage with seats (including the balconies of the theatre) around the performance space, and together with the opening scenes of the actors getting ready for the performance, this not only placed us as an audience within the story itself, but also introduced us immediately to the dream world of make-believe that an actor can pull their audience into.
My biggest problem with this production is, however, that it has missed an opportunity to adapt this original story even more, and to reimagine the possibilities of Life is A Dream as a work of the 21st century. The opportunity to explore how our use of film, television, social media, virtual reality, and the growing use of fake news blur even further our concepts of reality and dream offered so many possibilities to this story.
We live in a world where Donald Trump has served a full term as President of The USA, and a world where Boris Johnson is Prime Minister of the UK. Also we live in a world where plastics will soon be more plentiful than marine life in our oceans, and environmental Armageddon awaits us just around the next corner. If this is not a blurring of the lines between life and dreams, what is? These and many other topics could have given this production a real biting contemporary edge, but that opportunity to be bold, to create something of real 21st century relevance was not taken here.
Review by Tom King (c) 2021
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