EIF: Life is a Dream, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Review

Life is a Dream, Edinburgh International Festival - Javier Naval
Rating (out of 5)
Show info
Co-produced by Cheek by Jowl, Compañía Nacional de Teatro Clásico (CNTC Madrid) and LAZONA; in collaboration with the Barbican, London and Scène Nationale d’ALBI-Tarn, France.
Pedro Calderón de la Barca (writer), Declan Donnellan (director), Nick Ormerod (designer), Josete Corral (assistant director), Ganecha Gil (lighting designer), Fernando Epelde (sound designer and composer), Amaya Galeote (movement director), Pedro Víllora (dramaturgy advisor), Alessio Meloni (assistant designer), Juan Ollero (interpreter).
Ernesto Arias, Prince Ezeanyim, Rebeca Matellán, Manuel Moya, Alfredo Noval, Goizalde Núñez, Irene Serrano and Jorge Uson.
Running time

When life is nothing but a dream and even dreams are dreams there is room for confusion.

Uncertain as to his fate is Segismundo, a wretched figure chained like a wild beast in a lonely tower destined to be his cradle and his grave.  It’s far from his place as Crown Prince of Poland, but the fearful king, his father, has had him locked away, believing in a prophesy that he will destroy both him and country.

The king however begins to think he might have misread the stars and deprived the citizens of their rightful sovereign.  With some misgiving he decides to test fate and free him and well, if it all goes wrong and he proves a monster, he can always lock him away again and tell him it was nothing but a dream.

Awaking from a drugged sleep Segismundo moves from stuttering living corpse to animated newborn, marvellously erratic, aping mannerisms and bounding off into the auditorium to wonder at fine fabrics and brocades before returning with a found fire extinguisher as a courtly gift.

His joy is short-lived, and he reacts angrily, realising all that has been stolen from him.  “Scarcely a day here and you have killed someone” the fearfully circling king criticizes.  Awakening a second time has Segismundo exclaiming “Not again!”, but he will have a chance to conquer himself.  Perhaps even in a dream it is possible to do right.

The staging has a comically surreal quality, from the use of the cheesy Cuanto Le Gusta song to the physical clowning of the cast as the long line of doors flap open. A sub-plot involving cousins Astolfo and Estrella, who are vying for the crown, and the seduced and abandoned Rosaura is played out like a tv sit-com farce before a popcorn eating monarch.  Excellent sound and lighting design, particularly in the final scenes also breaks down the barriers between dreamlike action and the audience.  Sections with the actors in the auditorium are hampered by poor sight lines from the balcony circles.

Weighty themes of fate and free will, nature over nurture, and the moral dilemmas of revenge and the restoration of honour are all at play here.  Initially it’s a little difficult to assimilate but fine performances keep it energetic and it passes by in the end like a dream.


Note: Performed in Spanish with English supertitles.

Show Times: 23 to 26 August 2023 at 7.30pm.  Matinee 26 and 27 August at 2.30pm.

Tickets: £14 to £46 (concessions available).

Suitability: Contains adult themes, nudity, and the use of haze.