The Theatreguide.London Review
Life Is A Dream
Donmar Warehouse Autumn 2009
Calderon's 1635 drama is static and talky, but if you can stick with it, its passions and human story will grip you.
The plot reads almost like science fiction about a mad experiment. Frightened by predictions that his son will grow to be a savage tyrant, a king has the child imprisoned from birth.
When belated doubts about the plan lead him to let the now-grown man out, the prince unsurprisingly turns out to be wild and resentful, so he's drugged and sent back to think the episode a dream.
But the experience has the unexpected effect of leading him to a philosophical depth and detachment, so that when he is once again released he proves the wisest and most honourable person around.
(As a side note, it is obvious that Pirandello drew on this play for his similarly-themed Henry IV.)
It has been too long since I last saw this play for me to be sure whether it is Calderon's style or adapter Helen Edmundson's for the characters very rarely to talk with each other.
Rather, they make long narrative or self-justifying speeches, sometimes at each other, sometimes as soliloquies (with director Jonathan Munby putting anyone else onstage in a freeze-frame until the monologue ends).
The King, played with intense energy by Malcolm Storry, opens his first scene with at least ten minutes of uninterrupted exposition and back story.
He and each of the other characters have several more opportunities each to stop the action dead while they speak at length, in a rhythmic verse that lapses into rhyme just often enough to make you aware that it isn't rhyming the rest of the time.
As a result, much of what we witness is less acting than reciting, with Storry and David Horovitch as the prince's mentor the most successful at bringing life and variety to their long speeches.
And yet it works better than you might expect. Dominic West ploughs through the verbiage to take us into the prince's jumble of emotions and his remarkable ability to find his way through them to an unexpected but believable maturity.
He makes us see and feel the cost of the king's obscene experiment but also the resilience of a human spirit able to survive and transcend.
In a subplot about a wronged woman seeking vengeance, Kate Fleetwood makes the character fully alive while respecting the need to remain a subplot, and Lloyd Hutchinson provides some comic relief as a wry servant.
I would be lying if I tried to deny that Life Is A Dream is sometimes a pretty heavy slog for the audience. But hang in there and you will find yourself drawn into a rich and moving drama.
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