Performed by an ensemble of Spanish actors, Director Declan Donnellan and Designer Nick Ormerod’s Spanish-language co-production* of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 1630’s comedy Life Is a Dream comes two years after The Lyceum’s own ensemble revisited the play to great acclaim. It harbours a dark undercurrent, examining morality through the prism of dreams, thrown into sharp relief in this highly-stylised production by the bright lights of garish music-hall.
The dizzying opening scene unsettles us from the off, with its fevered torrent of players entering and leaving by way of the play’s one set – a wall of several doors swinging open and shut – employed throughout as a threshold between the real and imagined, the revealed and the secret.
This febrile dream is experienced by King Basilia, played by Ernesto Arias, who harbours a dreadful secret: believing a prophecy that his new-born son Segismundo (played in adulthood by Alfredo Noval) would grow to be a bloodthirsty tyrant, Basilia decides to lock the boy away in a mountain-prison, believing it to be for the good of his country, not to mention his own reign.
But with Segismundo now of age, the king, now doubting the prophesy and, troubled by guilt, allows his son to be rehabilitated at court. Basilia’s central reasoning is that, if the boy proves to be a tyrant as prophesied, then he can be locked-away again, and told it was all a dream. However, on emerging from prison, having been so cruelly deprived of clothes or education that he can barely speak or function, the boy is completely overwhelmed by the real, princely life he is unprepared for.
Stuttering and tormented, he clings desperately to his portable radio, which throughout the show repeats The Andrews Sisters’ version of Cuanto Le Gusta (roughly in English ‘however you like’) – one of the recurring brash modern-era motifs that bring a garish wackiness up against the despairing story that’s unfolding before us.
At first, I found the inevitable friction with this vaudeville garishness rather abstract, if not jarring – surely this is a tragedy – but in time found myself drawn in by the storyline, particularly the moral aspects: given how the king treated his son, who really is the tyrant here, isn’t the latter’s later vengefulness understandably justified?
Segismundo first tests the boundaries of his new freedom to comic effect, strutting out into the surprised auditorium and even making it up into the boxes, to try on audience members’ specs or hats, and bringing back a fire extinguisher. But, unschooled in civility, his power soon runs away with him and he carries away a hapless footman he takes a dislike to, and throws him into the sea. The eventual result will be conflict, pitting son against father.
Akin to Shakespeare in ingredients, plot and language*, Hamlet but with canned laughter and cabaret dancing, it does work, to one’s surprise, but it takes time to assimilate, and reconcile the tragedy with the kitsch presentation. Like an unsettling dream, it has the power to prompt you to chew over the story and scenes long after it’s over, examining its competing dimensions and angles.
*Cheek By Jowl’s first Spanish-language production, with Compañía Nacional de Teatro Clásico and LAZONA. In Spanish with English surtitles.