Spanish Golden Age dramatist Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s seminal baroque play Life is a Dream (La vida es Sueño) is a play entrenched in philosophical and metaphysical debate: Is fate a threatening force or simply an inevitable one? To whom do we owe our loyalty—those who obey the law or those who betray it in our name? “Is life a dream?”
Nearly 400 years on and de la Barca continues to probe at our sureties about reality and needle us about our credulity. Intimately engaged with conversations regarding free will, fate, honor, trauma, and forgiveness, Cheek by Jowl’s eerie and moody restaging of Barca’s baroque masterpiece proves to be an urgent and celebratory revival of an oft-overlooked classic.
Prior to the birth of his only child, King Basilio of Poland is delivered a disturbing prophecy by an oracle: his son, Prince Segismundo, will prove to be an evil and unworthy heir, sure to bring disgrace to the country and to kill his own father. Banished to live out his life imprisoned in a remote mountain, Prince Segismundo lives in squalor under the watchful eye of Clotaldo, his abusive warden and tutor. Yet, in a sudden change of heart, Basilio decides to allow his son entry to his Kingdom to test the oracle’s prediction. Be he cruel and vengeful, so shall he be killed; be he warm and forgiving, so shall he be welcomed. Yet, how to ensure that Segismundo doesn’t use his new freedom for revenge? Convince him he is dreaming.
Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s ethereal production draws on de la Barca’s meditations on power, rectitude, and revenge by highlighting their capricious nature. The shock of Segismundo’s two worlds colliding, those of cruel destitution and unimagined splendor, unravels the lies and hypocrisies which underpin his life. Donnellan and Ormerod caricature the conventions of megalomania and self-interest at the heart of monarchy, drawing in equal measure on the absurdity of panto and the earnestness of satire.
The show’s cast, an ensemble of only 9 players, is a troupe of masters. They balance the show’s intricate philosophical commentary with comedy which verges on slapstick and performances grounded in realism. Finding an appropriate balance between such vastly different tones can be quite the challenge, but Donnellan and Ormerod’s cast strikes it perfectly.
Ernesto Arias’ Basilio invokes the ethos of ancient and legendary kings such as Agamemnon, plagued by the choice to either serve his nation or to protect his family. Alfredo Noval’s Segismundo captures perfectly the torment of disillusion. As with Plato’s allegory of the cave, Segismundo must confront the limits of his perception and find forgiveness along the way. Noval lets us see the world through Segismundo’s incredulous eyes, making us question if we aren’t all living in a dreamscape of sorts. Goizalde Núñez’s bumbling and gawkish Clarín helms much of the show’s eccentric balance of waggish comedy and beguiling drama.
Núñez’s hypnotic role as the emcee to the show’s embedded dream narrative drives Donnellan and Ormerod’s restaging of the play. Like a cymbal-banging monkey interrupting a string orchestra, she disrupts de la Barca’s linear narrative with dream sequences not entirely removed from reality.
Accompanied by an orchestra of surreal lighting designed by Ganecha Gil and eerie sound design by Fernando Epelde, including the garish tune of a radio hit and the heckling of a studio audience, Cheek by Jowl conjures a world on the outskirts of reality. Not entirely removed from reason, nor reveling in obscurity, Life is a Dream celebrates the liminality of consciousness and urges us to question the limits of our perception.
Beyond its brilliant reinterpretation, Life is a Dream also marks the first exclusively Spanish-language production both to be mounted by the Barbican Artistic Associate company Cheek by Jowl and to grace the Barbican stage.
Life is a Dream (La Vida Es Sueño) is at the Barbican until 16th April 2023