Helen Edmundson’s new version of Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s 17th century play tests fate at the Donmar Warehouse.
Segismundo may well hope that life is a dream, given the fate worse than death he has been subjected to so far in his life. Since his birth he has been held captive in a remote tower prison after his father, the King of Poland, overreacted to his wife’s death during childbirth, thinking that his son’s arrival was a prophesy of doom for the country. In an even crueller act, the King has demanded that Segismundo be educated by his jailer Clotaldo, meaning the prisoner is fully aware of his unnatural situation and the outside world he is missing.
Even so, when we meet Dominic West’s Segismundo, inadvertently encountered by the disguised interloper Rosaura and her comic sidekick Clarion, he seems more refined than a man brought up without human contact should be. Dressed in rags and trailing heavy chains, he is nevertheless articulate and sane, although raging against his situation.
It is only when he is brought to the palace by his father, who finally reveals his secret to the court and decides to test fate by bringing his son back into the world, that Segismundo displays the wild side that has been nurtured in exile. In particular his behaviour towards the women he encounters – Sharon Small’s regal Estrella and Kate Fleetwood’s vengeance-driven Rosaura – aptly depicts the human instincts that have been denied him during his many years in captivity.
There are few sympathetic characters in the rest of Calderon de la Barca’s creation. Malcolm Storrey’s King Basilio continues to treat his son with inhumane cruelty, though he claims it is for the good of his country; Rupert Evans plays the smooth cad Astolfo, a pretender to the throne of Poland who wears his insincerity on his sleeve; Small’s Estrella, though admirably feisty, has similarly few scruples and will give away her hand in marriage to whomever can add most value to the transaction; David Horovitch’s Clotaldo, though loyal to his King and caring towards his long-lost daughter Rosaura, is revealed to be as insincere in love as Astolfo. Of all of them, only Rosaura, whose good name has been besmirched by Astolfo, has any kind of honour at all.
The cumulative effect makes for a dissatisfying ending which does not sit well with modern ideas about love and honour. It seems apt, in fact, that the loyal servant Clarion (Lloyd Hutchinson), who seems the most human of them all, is not around to see this conclusion.
Life Is A Dream is billed as a philosophical play about destiny, reality, life and the after-life. Perhaps a leap of faith is required to embrace this element of Calderon de la Barca’s play, a leap that Segismundo himself seems to take as he is transformed from angry captive to redemptive ruler.