Written by Pedro Calderón
Translated by Jo Clifford
Directed by Wils Wilson
No, you’re not dreaming. The Royal Lyceum is once more adorned with flickering lamp lights and opened stage doors. Once again, she welcomes residents of Scotland into her embrace, though with a minor stage-lift for this particular production. And you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was all in Jo Clifford’s dreamscape, with the vision of Life is a Dream taking a minor delay in arrival. But here it is. This cataclysmic interweaving of calamity, comedy, philosophy and revenge is the perfect reintroduction for many. But again – you’re not dreaming. Right?
A classic of the Spanish Golden Age, Jo Clifford’s favourite piece was due to close the Lyceum season in May 2020 – now re-opening the theatre after a stasis of slumber. How fitting. How fitting that this text, transcribed in so many ways, is the production to awaken audiences with how stories have changed and how additional layers of meaning have instilled themselves in timeless tales. How a story containing thinly veiled pomp is now so timely of the deceit and falseness of politicians, representatives and cronyism. It would seem dreams have become the norm.
Pedro Calderón masterpiece strays from the traditional structure – merely keeping the three-act narrative out of formality. A world of self-fulfilling prophecy, Life is a Dream finds the young Price Segismundo stripped of his honour and placed within a tower. All due to his mother, the Queen’s warning that he would become a tyrant. Upon his release, an exhausting maelstrom of avarice and revenge overtake him, but convinced his day of freedom was all a dream – a frightening lustre to ‘do good’ even while dreaming engulfs him.
A contemporary dream; the role of an actor, a storyteller, a profession that in recent times has grown in difficulty to blend with viability – the past year, more so than ever, has tested the capabilities and dedication of creatives – who have all found themselves awakening every morning from a vision, unsure of just how the dawn will greet their industry. And despite enough bureaucratic red tape to lynch freedom of expressional movement, artistic director David Grieg and the Lyceum team have strived to change and adapt, now more than ever.
Lyceum Associate Artist Wils Wilson strips back the theatre, opening it up to the elements and gaze of the audience. It makes for intensity – but it opens up wounds. Elements that needed to be rawer, more chaotic seem subdued. Or miscommunications to the audience with sudden modern technology (selfies need removing from gimmick usage) glint in the darkness as follies. But where the tenacity of direction lays within performance, a myriad of shimmering talent from Dyfan Dwyfor and Kelsey Griffin.
A fine friend once remarked to us: “keep an eye on Lorn, he’ll be a big thing in Scottish theatre”. We never questioned them; it was evident. But here – on the Lyceum stage, it becomes a flagship setting for a minor revolution in performance. The conclusion of Act Two makes it fundamentally clear that the next generation of Scottish performers will tear apart the world of theatre and reconstruct the visage into a long-overdue reshape.
Vocally castrated, the muzzle restricts Segismundo’s deceptive talents of conversational musings; existential and twisted. Grunting, primal and visceral – Macdonald’s physicality adapts to Clifford’s adaptation with ease, as a Prince who spent his childhood imprisoned by the queen, his mother, for fear of a prophecy that he will divide the nation and grow to become a beast.
Under the intimate guidance and movement direction from Janice Parker, the bestial physicality may blend the hind legs of a dog with the whimpering charges of a boar – there’s still a disturbingly corporeal and human element to Macdonald’s movements. A dash of insanity and bloodthirst recognisable in a man hungry for revenge. Infusions of Macdonald’s voice with the gnarling squeals of a pig, Calum Patterson’s sound design draws the score of the production alongside Nerea Bello’s vocal into the characters actions – most of the expositional storytelling communicated in verse or comedic breaks.
And this humour is required in a melancholic tale. Laura Lovemore, Clarin the trumpet, the gossip, the smartest in the room is a welcome addition of lustre. Dipping somewhat into a Falstaffian nature, a catalyst for the plot, Lovemore eagerly pulls threads and stands by the sides of the (current) winner.
The false bound promise merges into the physical realms of staging, calling on ancient theatrical structures – the proscenium, rotten and crumbling, reinforcing the deception of the production. It makes for a battlefield of sorts, one in which Anna Russel-Martin hungers for a taste of revenge, garbed in the fineries of a lady, armed with the malice of a man. Russel-Martin’s back and forth with the men she encounters across the production is the duality Clifford’s storytelling requires, a character to suffer similar betrayal to Macdonald’s, but to demonstrate her story of dishonour in a frighteningly sympathetic manner.
You’d be forgiven for finding a head-tilt or two as the story moves into the third act, where the dream analogies begin to cloud themselves a touch messily. But where it redeems itself is in the lack of redemption for our cast of rogues and Clifford’s continuing demonstration of humanities decaying manner. The foul queen Basilio stripped back to a humble mother howling out for her child is no hero by the end, her thin robes as transparent as her actions. Alison Peebles, a towering presence, commanding the thrust of the stage with little more than a presence.
Bookended between the construction of illusionary rarity to a shattering remnant of the fragility of theatre, Life is a Dream could all be summed within a blink of an eye: chartering the unexpectant waters of an industry forever changed in an era of plenty. Its two-hour runtime is channelled well enough to the constraints of live theatre’s new visage, but for any gripes of messy structure, Life is a Dream plays a bitter swan-song of theatre. But not one of the industries demise, but of its rebirth into a new era – one where we solemnly dance to its calls, unsure of when the light may be snuffed.
Life is a Dream runs at The Royal Lyceum until November 20th. Tickets for which can be booked here.
Photo Credit – Ryan Buchanan