Kim Brandstrup’s latest work for Rambert is the company’s first narrative piece for 39 years and a loose adaptation of Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s baroque tragicomedy Life is a Dream. The play, written around 1635, is underpinned by the Cartesian doubt of the age – the epistemological problem posed by the supposed similarity of dreams to waking reality – while also calling into question notions of kingship and divinity.
It struck me, as I wandered into Sadler’s Wells, that perhaps Descartes and Pedro Calderon de la Barca were inexperienced in the full empirical onslaught of feline elder care. When the former claimed that we experience dreams and waking life in the same sensory way, he’d obviously never been presented with the pungent phenomena of a senior cat’s soiled rump hovering over his pillow as he awoke, gasping, from slumber.
When you’re sluicing shit off an angry cat’s saturated arse early on a Saturday morning, it is – in the words of De La Soul – realer than real. My dreams tend to be stressful and wretched, but I think they’re pretty much scentless and don’t require antibacterial hand gel.
There’s a strange sterility to Brandstrup’s take on Calderon – it’s heavy on concept but somewhat resistant to generating strong feeling; atmospheric by design but anodyne in its effect. Brandstrup doesn’t attempt to translate the intricacies of the play’s actual plot into dance (it concerns a Polish prince named Segismundo who’s locked away in a tower by his father, escapes to go on a rampage of rape and violence, is imprisoned again and persuaded that everything he experiences is a dream. There’s a jilted woman called Rosaura who’s dressed as a man, some cousins, a clown and an old tutor. Battles and marriages follow).
Instead, Brandstrup adds a metatheatrical layer, locating the action in a cavernous grey room circa mid-twentieth century in which a bunch of Eastern bloc actors and their director are rehearsing the play. The Quay brothers’ absorbing design brings the aesthetics of post-war Polish cinema to the stage – slivers of light and shadow scud across the monochrome set with its concrete pillars and bleak barred windows, while everything shimmers with an oily, oneiric quality, especially the high-shine floor. Video projections show ominous gatherings of birds and a grey Matthew Arnold-style sea.
When the director drifts off to sleep, scenes are repeated and refracted by a shifting cast dressed in dark garments that merge 1950s silhouettes – capri pants, gabardine suits and nipped-in waists – with hints of elaborate 17th century get-up. Brandstrup combines the grounded language of contemporary movement with balletic formality to suggest knotty tangles of approach, rejection and confusion. Unstable duets full of lurching balances gesture towards Rosaura’s discovery of Segismundo. In solitary sequences, the prince paces and pounds the floor, his hands ungrasping under the flopping cuffs of a sort of mega-sleeved straight-jacket.
Although the Rambert dancers execute everything excellently, the overall effect is disappointingly dull. Without any sort of narrative clarity, we’re left only with woolly approximations of selfhood and ‘the uncanny’, as suggested by the programme notes, that occupy a limited imaginative plateau. When the director starts wielding a giant light and mirroring himself in the second act, proceedings begin to emit the tiresome tang of conceptual onanism. A dose of surprise cat shit would sort that solipsism out, good n proper.
Fortunately, Witold Lutoslawski’s music is played at full throttle by the Rambert orchestra. Solo violinist Charles Mutter performs harmonic wonders on the upper reaches of the E-string, articulating invisible currents of melancholy strangeness. There are sudden scattered drum beats and bursts of jazziness, the woodwind twittering like songbirds with a beatnik bent. With its insistent chirrups and doleful yowls, Lutoslawski almost imitates the profound symphonic variety of a venerable cat.
Life is a Dream was on at Sadler’s Wells from 22 – 26 May 2018. Click here for more details.