Unlike other fellow Spaniards in the audience for last Friday's performance, I wasn't particularly protective of Calderón de la Barca's masterpiece. Sure, like all Spanish people, I had to study it at school, and even during my time with the college school theatre we had a shot or two at Segismundo's inmortal soliloquy. But I was not worried or bothered about what kind of faithfulness Helen Edmunson could show in her translation.
It is a very good translation, too. The actors, I can guess less aware then some in the audience as to who or what was De la Barca, chose to deliver Edmunson's rich and gorgeous dialogue as if they were doing Shakespeare. That proved to be the right choice as well. Like most Shakespeare, Life is a Dream is at times brilliant, absurd, shamelessly uninterested in plot and surprisingly strange. De la Barca's play is very charged, philosophically, and that's one of the reasons of its endurance. His characters are sometimes too thinly-written and the narrative arch is uneven, making for a second half that is much weaker than the first.
With all the inherent flaws of the play, this is a production that makes good use of its virtues and it is also very Donmar-ish, if such thing exists. Sometimes I think the Donmar is overhyped but then it always delivers - at least the Donmar Warehouse does (let us forget the horrendous Donmar West End production of Hamlet, which still brings on nightmares in my house). This one doesn't fly as high as Dimetos but Jonathan Munby's Life is a Dream is handsome, engaging and thoroughly entertaining.
As a fan of minimal set designs I was happy to be met by Angela Davies' dark and damp stage, its bareness in perfect synch with the play's metaphorical nature. The live music by Ansuman Biswas added perfect effect as well. When it comes to production values no one can argue that the Donmar always gets it right (unless we are talking about Hamlet *shivers*) and this is no exception. Once more, at times, I thought I was witnessing some RSC's version of Shakespeare, but with a lot more charm.
As for the acting, Dominic West stroke the perfect balance between princely pride and a kind of rude, savage energy. He was suprisingly funny too. The transformation in the character in the second half and his hurried decisions in the climax didn't ring quite true but that's a problem of the writing rather than Mr.West's. Other than that he was up to the challenge and turned out a really commanding presence on stage. I had always imagined Segismundo to be a lot more fragile but Dominic West brought a caged-animal quality to his acting that, although not my idea of the character, convinced me completely.
The rest of the cast was solid and brilliant. Glad to see Kate Fleetwood on stage again, after how much we liked her in Rupert Goold's Macbeth. She is so fierce, it's a joy to see her act. Great Lloyd Hutchinson as well, getting on another great Donmar production after impressing us with his Antonio in the West End's Twelfth Night. Perhaps the greatest surprise of the evening was Rupert Evans, who hadn't impressed us in film or tv ever and whom we missed at the Bush's Broken Space Season last year; he was particularly flawless, hilarious and grabbing the verse and making it his own to the very last syllable. That should teach us not to judge just from what we see on the telly...
Bottom line: high value entertaiment, worth every penny of its (decently priced) ticket. Helen Edmunson turned in a lively translation & she even did quite alright when approaching what's arguably the best-known and loved monologue in the history of Spanish theatre:
Oh wretched me! Unhappy me!
Dear Lord in Heaven, tell me please,
what harm does my existence mean
that I should be so cruelly used
as this? That I was born I do
confess, and being born is Man's
most henious crime, deserving
of severest judgement, yet and yet
I cannot grasp nor comprehend
what further crime I did commit
that I should be condemned
to such extremes of punishment.
For are not all men born, as I?