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Life is a Dream (La Vida Es Sueño) at the Barbican

Upfront, funny and thoughtful Life’s a Dream is Declan Donnellan’s latest production, expanding his repertoire to new and interesting places. This new adaptation of the classic Spanish play is everything you could ask for in a philosophical allegory about the absurdity of everyday life.

Rebeca Matellán (Rosaura) and Alfredo Noval (Segismundo) in Life is a Dream. Photo by Javier Naval.
Rebeca Matellán (Rosaura) and Alfredo Noval (Segismundo) in Life is a Dream. Photo by Javier Naval.

In Donnellan’s first foray into Spanish-written, Spanish-performed theatre he has taken the interesting story of Segismundo (Alfredo Noval), the imprisoned prince of Poland. Segismundo is rescued, given a chance at redemption, and cast back into chains before mounting a grand rebellion against the ageing King Basilio of Poland (Ernesto Arias). Along the way, we meet a series of classic fairy tale characters, the sycophants, the court jester and several other amusing caricatures. But underneath this formulaic folklore story is an introspection into the human condition. Segismundo’s turbulent, up-and-down experience of this story leaves him wondering if this is all a dream, a fantastical hallucination of a rotting mind. Likewise, we, the audience, are left wondering the same thing by the end of the play, and whether that even matters.

But Donnellan is too clever for just that, indulging himself in yet more philosophical turmoil. Further beneath Segismundo’s existential reflections is Donnellan’s ponderings on the meaning of theatre. As Segismundo ponders what was real and what was not, we wonder what is real and what is not, in the story, in our experience of the story and beyond. Actors regularly stray into the audience, looking at us as though perturbed by our existence as either evidence that it is all a story or the horrifying reality of it all. I like this, it gives me lots to reflect on, about whether it matters that it was ‘just a story’ if it made me feel things and was enjoyable. In the final act of the play, Segismundo worries his glorious revolution was just another dream, but confesses that to have dreamt it would be enough. I wonder if this is Donnellan saying ‘Who cares if this is just a story in a theatre’ Isn’t that experience powerful enough?

The piece is decidedly stripped back, hammering home that ‘just a story’ feeling that pervades the evening. The stage is reduced to just a green wall with a series of swinging doors in it, through which characters seem to constantly be revolving, giving the piece an almost pantomimical style to it. Donnellan is at his best when he is experimenting with form, from chaplin-esque clown to the more sweeping expressionistic moments in the third act, it provides new perspectives and leaves me with lots to think about, always the mark of a good piece.

4 stars

Review by Tom Carter

A prince chained in a mountain. A young woman disguised as a man, in search of vengeance. Revolution, love and murder – but in Life is a Dream, is the real truly real or is it all just a dream?

Written in verse in 1635, Life is a Dream is one of Spanish dramatist Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s best-known and most studied works and was listed as one of the 40 greatest plays of all time by The Independent.

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, France.

Written by Pedro Calderón de la Barca
In a version by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod

Cast: Ernesto Arias, Prince Ezeanyim, David Luque, Rebeca Matellán, Manuel Moya, Alfredo Noval, Goizalde Núñez, Antonio Prieto and Irene Serrano.

Director: Declan Donnellan; Designer: Nick Ormerod; Assistant Director: Josete Corral; Lighting: Ganecha Gil; Sound Design and Composer: Fernando Epelde; Movement Director: Amaya Galeote; Dramaturgy Advisor: Pedro Villora; Assistant Designer: Alessio Meloni; Lighting Assistant: Javier Hernandez; Costume Assistant: Elena Colmenar; Sound Assistant: Gastón Horischnik; Interpreter: Juan Ollero; Publicity Design: Javier Naval; Executive Producer (LAZONA): Miguel Cuerdo; Company Manager (LAZONA): Elisa Fernández

14 October 2022 – April 2023
UK Press Night: Thursday 13 April at Barbican Theatre, 7.45pm

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