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Life is a Dream at The Lyceum – Edinburgh International Festival

There isn’t a discernible specific time period, judging by the use of modern attire, a radio, and so on – all we know is that Poland is still ruled by a monarchy. Given that the monarchy was abolished in 1795 and the play itself was first published in 1636, perhaps more could have been done to reflect the centuries-old setting. The set is relatively basic, which makes it easy, I suppose, to take the show on tour (which is what has happened with this production), and while eventually there’s a different backdrop to look at, for the most part, the royal palace looks the same as the royal dungeon, such that the former is too sparse and the latter is too cosy.

Life is a Dream at The Lyceum - Edinburgh International Festival
Life is a Dream at The Lyceum – Edinburgh International Festival

I make the point about this being a seventeenth-century play because to treat it as a contemporary work would mean the ending is too tidy, with various narrative strands tied up as the play races to a very complete finish. Some good use is made of the stage space, with some members of the company breaching the fourth wall on several occasions, which added only a negligible additional entertainment value. Frankly, the very final scene might as well have been from a pantomime: evil is defeated, A marries B, X marries Y, and everybody’s happy. The End.

Segismundo (oddly, a cast list was provided but not a character list) is technically the rightful heir to the throne but because of some sort of prophecy that the current king, Basilio, decided to take seriously, he was sent ‘to the tower’ but imprisoned rather than executed. I have no idea why he wasn’t killed off by the reigning monarch, as the prophecy said he (Segismundo) would kill his father and bring shame to Poland, and I would have thought the easiest way around that, apart from the obvious one – that is, dismissing it – would be to have had Segismundo put to death. Perhaps he didn’t believe in the death penalty, or he’s simply not prepared to have his own son killed off: later, he wants to test the waters and see how Segismundo gets on if he is freed.

Given a lack of exposure to civilised society, it naturally follows Segismundo has no idea, for instance, how to sit on a chair, or even that a chair is meant to be sat on, making contact with the smooth upholstery with his face rather than his backside. He picks up on things remarkably quickly, however, even if maintaining a sense of decorum and holding one’s temper take longer, and before long has some ideas, with a partial fulfilment of the prophecy in mind – an overthrow of a tyrannical king, which would put Poland in a stronger position rather than bring shame on it.

The takeaway message is about living life as though it were a dream, so you’ll (almost) always do the ‘right’ thing because you never know when the dream is going to end. That’s nice, but the two-hour no-interval running time, even in an engaging production, seems a bit long after all to tell people to, in contemporary terms, ‘live, laugh, love’. The characters express strong emotions when the occasion calls for it, and it was delightful to hear, albeit in Spanish (English supertitles were provided), passion, anger, and even heartfelt feelings of love. This production’s interpretation of the play gives it an abstract feel, and it held my attention throughout. It’s a complex plot but it was fairly easy to get the gist of it thanks to an engaging and hardworking cast.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Award-winning international theatre company Cheek by Jowl presents a radical new version of a Spanish classic.

A prince is chained in a mountain from birth, following a prophecy that he is destined to become a tyrant. Upon release, he discovers a world completely different to the one he’s always known. Is this reality, or is it all just a dream?

Wed 23 – Sun 27 Aug 2023

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