Life is a Dream


Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

There’s something decidedly dreamlike about our return to the Lyceum.

It’s been so very long since we’ve entered these hallowed portals and, now that we’re here, we hardly recognise the place. It’s had a major makeover for this play, with a new floor built up over the stalls. The result is a more intimate performance space; this production is presented in the round, with some members of the audience sitting right next to the actors. I’m reminded, more than anything, of the Royal Exchange in Manchester, our old ‘go to’ venue for new and innovative theatre, and this reinvention seems like an astute move on the part of the Lyceum. And if director Wils Wilson doesn’t maximise the reconfigured space’s potential quite as well as, say, Sarah Frankcom might, that’s only to be expected; after all, the Exchange’s artistic directors have had a lot of practice at this!

Life is a Dream is one of those weird seventeenth century fairy tales, written by Pedro Calderon and first staged in Madrid in 1630. This translation, by Jo Clifford (who, coincidentally, is sitting in the row in front of us), is strong on acerbic humour and gender confusion and, while it probably wouldn’t do to think too closely about the bizarre machinations of the plot, the actors’ confidence seems to grows steadily throughout the performance, exerting a powerful grip on the audience.

This is the story of captive prince, Segismundo (Lorn MacDonald), imprisoned in a tower by his own mother, Queen Basilio (Alison Peebles), who once dreamed that her son would turn out to be a tyrant, so decided to be proactive and imprison him just in case. But Segismundo is released by his old tutor, Clotaldo (John McCaulay), and pretty soon, the prince has the opportunity to show that he can be kind and considerate, but, driven half mad by his long imprisonment chooses to do exactly the opposite – until he is told that life is all a dream, and so he should do his best to behave well and stop the nightmares. Then there’s angry, jilted Rosaura (Anna Russell Martin) and her companion, Clarin (Laura Lovemore), the latter of whom keeps breaking the fourth wall to make sarcastic comments about what we’re watching…

Actually, there’s little point in going over the plot in detail, because it’s quite frankly bonkers, but what comes across so powerfully here is the magical feel of the production and the excitement of seeing something new, fresh and innovative. McDonald is terrific as the near feral Segismundo, scampering around the stage, snorting and quivering like a hunted animal, seemingly unable to make a quick decision. Peebles brings a sense of quiet authority to her role as the much misguided Queen of Poland and Russell Martin has a delightful knack for uttering sarcastic asides.

More than anything else, it’s great to back at the Lyceum and this sparky piece makes for a delightful return.

We’re already excited to see what comes next.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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