First published in The Times, Wednesday November 3 2021
Jo Clifford’s translation of Life is a Dream was originally due to be staged at the Lyceum back in May 2020. In the intervening period, when at times everyday life has taken on the character of nightmare, Pedro Calderón’s classic of the Spanish Golden Age has only acquired new potency.
Anyone expecting cultural comfort food as they return to the theatre for the first time in many months may be disconcerted. Wils Wilson, the associate director of the Lyceum, has reconfigured the auditorium for her production, replacing the seating in the stalls with raised flooring that merges with the stage floor, so that the fourth wall is not so much broken as obliterated. The effect is disarming, forcing us to consider a familiar space with fresh eyes.
Wilson’s decision to stage the play in an intimate setting suits Clifford’s witty update, in which actors welcome us to the performance in their underwear and routinely come in and out of character without warning. This refusal to allow the audience to be seduced into suspending our disbelief adds further resonance to Calderón’s juxtaposition of the ordinary with the extraordinary and the play’s exploration of how we distinguish the real from the imagined.
The play, in outline, has a fable-like quality that recalls Rapunzel, only with a brutal twist. The protagonist, Segismundo (played in Wilson’s production with raw physicality by Lorn MacDonald), is the son of an all-powerful Polish queen, Basilio (Alison Peebles), who, unsettled by a prophecy on his birth, had the boy locked away in a secret tower. Years later, Basilio is tempted to release the child, now “half-human, half-wild animal”, with disastrous consequences. In attempting to return the feral prisoner to his cage, Basilio and the boy’s jailers and tormenters hatch a scheme to convince Segismundo that everything he experienced above ground was nothing but a dream.
Such a tall tale requires a gutsy approach and Wilson and the nine-strong ensemble bring a full-blooded commitment to the scenario and Clifford’s irreverent adaptation, so that you almost don’t notice the joins between the central plot and its various bolted-on subplots. Within the large dramatis personae, the characters are all fully realised and distinct, with the ensemble fully attuned to the mix of brutality and humour in the script, so that the production manages to be very funny and entertaining as well as unsettling.
Although the staging is generally unfussy, an eerie, dreamlike quality is achieved through the use of haunting live singing, courtesy of Nereo Bello, while Kai Fischer’s beautiful, gold-suffused lighting delicately interacts with the detail in the proscenium and the theatre’s ornamented ceiling.
Box office: 0131 248 4848, to Nov 20. Lyceum.org.uk