Theatre reviews: Life is a Dream | The Tempest

Both Life is a Dream at the Lyceum and The Tempest at the Tron reflect the Renaissance belief in the boundless possibilities of nature and humanity, writes Joyce McMillan

Lorn Macdonald as Segismundo and Anna Russell-Martin as Rosaura in Life is a Dream PIC: Ryan Buchanan
Lorn Macdonald as Segismundo and Anna Russell-Martin as Rosaura in Life is a Dream PIC: Ryan Buchanan

Life is a Dream, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh ****

The Tempest, Tron Theatre, Glasgow ****

It’s hard to imagine a more exhilarating play than Pedro Calderon’s Life is a Dream, to open the long-awaited new autumn season at the Lyceum Theatre. Written in the late 1620s, towards the end of the Spanish “Golden Age”, it offers both a breathtaking romp through the interconnected worlds of theatre, politics, philosophy, love and war, and an intensely self-reflexive drama about the power of imagination.

Anna Russell Martin and Lorn Macdonald in Life is a Dream PIC: Ryan Buchanan

In outline, the play tells the story of a Polish prince, Segismundo, who has spent his life chained like an animal in a lonely tower, after his mother, the Queen, dreamed that he would become a monster of cruelty and violent rebellion. Of course, her fears have helped to create something like the monster she feared; and when she impulsively releases him, the worst ensues.

In the midst of his pell-mell journey towards lust, self-sacrifice and a ferocious civil war, though, Segismundo becomes seized by the idea that life – and its surreal reversals of fortune – is only a dream, not to be trusted or believed; and it’s this thought that opens the door to the wild, slightly punk-inflected brilliance and energy of Wils Wilson’s Lyceum production, played out on the fabulous oval extended stage built across the Lyceum stalls during lockdown. Powerfully blurring the distinction between stage and auditorium, the space forms a perfect arena for Jo Clifford’s playful and brilliant 1998 version of Calderon’s text, now substantially updated. And the top-flight company Wilson has assembled for this Lyceum reopening – led by a superb Alison Peebles as the Queen, an intensely physical Lorn Macdonald as Segismundo, a furious Anna Russell-Martin as Segismundo’s object of desire Rosaura, and a superb Laura Lovemore as the wise-cracking clown, Clarin – seize and run with the play for all it’s worth, barely pausing in an arc of action that lasts two and a quarter hours without an interval.


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The look of the show is astonishing, featuring wild and beautiful set and costumes – part underwear, part punk royalty – by Georgia McGuinness and Alex Berry, and ravishing, spilling golden light by Kai Fischer; there’s also a driving and haunting musical soundtrack co-ordinated by Davey Anderson, and sung by Nerea Bello. And although a certain dimension of sheer poetry sometimes seem to go missing in action – everyone’s voice often seems pitched half an octave too high – the show compensates with a level of energy that is unforgettable; and a landscape of rare moral complexity and wisdom, as well as a glorious celebration of the dream-like brevity and vividness of life itself.

Andy Arnold’s new version of The Tempest, at the Tron, seems like a subdued and tentative affair by comparison, although not without moments of intense theatrical richness. Like Life Is A Dream – but written 20 years earlier – The Tempest is a play filled with that Renaissance sense of the boundless possibilities of nature and humanity; and like Calderon, Shakespeare explicitly plays, in this drama, with the concept of reality as a kind of magical illusion, or a dream.

The cast of The Tempest, from left to right: Ninon Noiret, Nicole Cooper, Titana Muthui, Liz Kettle, Ariana Ferris McLean PIC: Joe Connolly/Jamhot

Staged with an eleven-strong all-female cast – many of them young actors at the start of their careers – Arnold’s production, set in a dusty old library, sometimes seems a little detached from the beauty and magic of the island where the deposed Duke Prospero now lives; the verse is often rushed and lost, the magic leapt over rather than enjoyed.

Yet the wonderful Nicole Cooper makes a commanding and lyrical Prospero, Itxaso Moreno a powerful and poignant Ariel, and Liz Kettle an astonishing Caliban, an ever more eloquent victim of island colonialism; in a brief 85-minute version of the play that offers a fascinating shift of perspective towards the characters who were there when Prospero arrived on the island, and who will still be there when all the men of wealth and power have long departed, taking their stories with them.

Life is a Dream is at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 20 November. The Tempest is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 13 November.


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