There have perhaps been times, during this strange year, when all of us have felt that the life we led before the pandemic was beginning to seem like a dream; as if that frenzied, unsustainable cycle of travel and shopping and meetings and social events had somehow never really happened at all, or had just been a fleeting figment of humanity’s over-ambitious imagination. And that strange shared experience makes this a near-perfect moment for a production of Pedro Calderon’s Spanish Golden Age drama Life Is A Dream, first seen in Madrid in 1635, which would - in normal times - have been part of the 2020 spring season at the Lyceum Theatre.
In this play, a young prince, Segismundo, is released from the dark tower where he has been imprisoned since birth by his father, who believes his son is destined, if set free, to become a savage tyrant and killer. Having lived so long only in imagination, Segismundo is convinced - like his near contemporary Prospero, in Shakespeare’s Tempest - that life is nothing but a dream, an illusion of greatness or misery that ends with the reality of death; and Calderon’s play therefore raises some extraordinarily modern 21st century questions about how, in what we now call a quantum universe, human perception and belief can shape reality - or even constitute the whole of reality, which may not exist as an objective phenomenon at all.
The playwright Jo Clifford - whose translation of Life Is A Dream would have been directed at the Lyceum this spring by associate director Wils Wilson - has become best known, in recent years, as one of the world’s leading transgender playwrights, creating in God’s New Frock and The Gospel According To Jesus Queen Of Heaven passionate challenges to old patriarchal ways of thinking and living that have echoed from Edinburgh and Glasgow to Milan, Sao Paulo, and beyond.
Clifford is also, though, a mighty scholar and translator of Spanish drama, who, as John Clifford, studied at St Andrews in the 1970s under the legendary Professor Ferdy Woodward. Her early career as a writer - with plays such as Losing Venice and Ines de Castro, produced to international acclaim at the Traverse Theatre in the 1980s - was hugely influenced by the great Spanish drama of the early 17th century; and her translation of Life Is A Dream first appeared at the Edinburgh International Festival of 1998, in a spectacular mirrored production by the Catalan director Calixto Bieito.
In this extract - taken from the new version of the text created for this year’s Lyceum production, and slightly adapted again following the experience of lockdown - Clifford explores for Scotsman Sessions the words of the newly-released Segismundo, as he sets out his philosophy of life as a dream. Was this Calderon’s philosophy? Probably only in part; his style has a down-to-earth, humorous quality, alongside its strong philosophical and poetic elements, that suggests a slightly more robust and compassionate engagement with what we call reality.
Yet in an age when people so often seem to be inhabiting parallel mental universes with very little in common, the questions Calderon asks in Life Is A Dream have never been more significant, or more disturbing. If we cast ourselves adrift from the idea of an objective reality, what then, for those who want to govern well, or even just live well? Like all great writers, Calderon has no easy answers; but he surely knows how to ask the questions, with unforgettable power.
Jo Clifford’s version of Life Is A Dream will now appear at the Lyceum Theatre in 2021. More details at https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/life-is-a-dream, and at https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=387570678555971.
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