Theatre has been slower to get going again post-lockdown in Scotland than it has in the rest of the UK. The Edinburgh Lyceum – perhaps the country’s flagship theatre – closed its doors on March 17th last year. 595 days and a host of online audio plays later, it has flung them open again. That in itself is a cause for celebration. So, too, though, is the show artistic director David Greig has opted to open with – Wils Wilson’s in-the-round revival of seventeenth-century Spanish writer Pedro Calderon’s Life Is A Dream, as translated by Jo Clifford. It’s a remarkable production of a remarkable play that reminds Edinburgh audiences what they have been missing for months and months.
Life Is A Dream is probably the best known of Calderon’s plays, but it is still not as well known or produced as often as it should be. It has popped up as an opera in recent years, and as two-handed all-female adaptation, but the last major straight revival was at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009 with Dominic West. Before that, it was the premiere of this translation, in this theatre, in 1998. 23 years ago. That is far too long for so significant a work of world drama. There are so-so Shakespeares that get revived ten times as often.
So, given said scarcity, a plot summary is probably appropriate. Life Is A Dream is set in wintry Poland, and the story revolves around Segismundo, a prince who has been imprisoned in an isolated tower since birth by his own father the King – here re-gendered as Queen – for fear of a portentous prophecy that he would wreak cruel havoc upon inheriting the throne. Approaching old age, the Queen lets him live in luxury as an experiment: if he is kind, he will become her heir; if he is cruel, he will return to the tower, and be told it was all a dream. There are Shakespearean sub-plots of confused lovers and secret parents – but it is this Segismundo stuff that sits at the heart of it all.
It was wise of Greig to programme the play pre-pandemic, and even wiser to stick with it, for it has only gained contemporary resonance in the intervening period. The imprisonment and – mild spoiler – subsequent inhumanity of Segismundo (he chucks a guy out of a window just for the hell of it) speaks strongly to society’s habit of casting people as villains, and then acting surprised when they behave like one. But it is the overarching theme of life’s fleeting fragility that hits home hardest post-lockdown. Everything – riches, power, the ability to see your family or go to the theatre – could evaporate in an instant, so we must do as much good as we can, while we can, says Calderon: “Even when you’re dreaming, the good you do is never lost.”
Wilson’s two-hour, no-interval production plays up this second strand – emphasising the artifice of the evening in a borderline Brechtian way. The theatre has been reconfigured in-the-round – there are seats where the stage usually is, and a stage in the stalls instead – and the actors prepare for the play in full view of the audience, applying their make-up and chatting around a table centre-stage. This is momentary, Wilson emphasises, this is make-believe, so let’s have fun. The scant set and scrappy costumes tap into this idea, too. Presumably budgetary black holes had something to do with this as well, but either way, it’s a neat meta reflection of Calderon’s core theme. Davey Anderson’s cinematic score bulks things up a bit.
The sparse staging also shines a light on a series of scorching performances. Lorn Macdonald – magnificent in Kieran Hurley’s Mouthpiece at the Traverse Theatre – is most striking as Segismundo, surely one of the most challenging roles in world drama with its wavering between kindness and cruelty, anger and articulacy. He hurls himself into it, at first chained up like Hannibal Lecter and utterly miserable, then, once free, lurching around the stage, eyes flaring, and grunting like a boar. Elsewhere, Dyfan Dwyfor and Anna Russell-Martin impress as long-lost lovers Astolpho and Rosaura – he amusingly effete, she raging and revengeful. Laura Lovemore is entertainingly self-interested as Rosaura’s companion Clarin, and Alison Peebles is deliciously demented, like a deranged Anna Wintour, as Queen Basilio.
It would have been easy and understandable for Greig to shelve Life Is A Dream, and opt for a more crowd-pleasing curtain-raiser after 595 days in the dark. It would also have been a great shame, because this terrific production of a terrific translation of a classic might never have seen the light. It’s the stuff of dreams.
Life is a Dream runs at Edinburgh Lyceum until 20 November. More info here.