Kate Fleetwood, Lloyd Hutchinson, Dominic West, David Horovitch, David Smith, Rupert Evans, Sharon Small, Malcolm Storry, Dylan Turner
The programme notes for the Donmar’s new production of Pedro Caldern de la Barca’s Life is a Dream suggest that Spain’s true Golden Age was not, as we now think, the 17th but the 16th Century, when the country gloried in imperialist excess.
By the time Caldern came on the scene, Spain had been torn apart by, amongst other things, the drama of Don Carlos and his tyrannical father Philip II and the fate of the seemingly invincible Armada, wrecked on the rocks of English steadfastness and rivalry in greed.
A great smear of peeling, tarnished gold across Angela Davies’s set reflects this age of decline and the gilded glint piercing through darkness could be a metaphorical summary of this fantastical play.
We get Caldern’s work at two removes, as is the tendency these days (filtered through Helen Edmundson’s handsome new version, based in turn, one assumes, on a literal translation). The play is short on psychological depth and long on great arching speeches of poetic prose, with characters spewing forth for minutes at a time. This leads to a good deal of declamation and noisy running around to compensate for the static nature of much of the writing.
If one is reminded of the (almost) contemporary Jacobean revenge plays, without the excessive bloodletting that makes them so voyeuristically fascinating, there is also a casting forward to the Henry IV of Pirandello in Caldern’s serpentine plot.
The King of Poland, frightened by mystical forecasts of his son’s despotism, keeps the boy locked up in pitiful conditions. He decides to reinstate his heir but the enfant sauvage, catapulted from deprivation to luxury and power turns out to be a monster, casually tossing a servant off a balcony on a whim and all but raping the first woman he sees. The king returns him to his prison and the prince is forced into questioning the reality of his dreamlike adventure.
The dream imagery which dominates the first half peters out in the second, where the emphasis is on the unravelling of the sub-plot the feisty male-attired Rosaura’s quest for justice from her faithless lover. The resolution is more akin to a Shakespeare comedy than the later Jacobean tragedies, with only the most unlikely character meeting a bloody end.
Munby’s production, an updating to the early 19th Century with dashing hussars and shiny breastplates, injects a fair amount of theatricality into the prolix verbalising and the strong cast keep things moving at a good pace. Fresh from US TV stardom, Dominic West impresses physically, if not altogether vocally, as the abused and abusing Segismundo. He ranges from the desperate to the maniacal and finally to a resolved wisdom.
Kate Fleetwood excels as the warrior maiden Rosaura and there’s good support from Rupert Evans as the preening pretender Astolfo and Sharon Small as the love-rival Estrella. Malcom Storry’s staccato delivery as the king Basilio only just stays the right side of mannered as does David Horovitch’s wily Clotaldo, while Lloyd Hutchinson’s cheeky chappie court jester will only appeal to some.
There was a time, some years ago, when revivals of Caldern’s plays were all the rage, with productions of The Surgeon of Honour and The Mayor of Zalamea, as well as Life is a Dream all within living memory. If his star has waned a little recently, this lively production provides a good opportunity to acquaint yourself with his rich imagery and unusual dramaturgy.