Life is a Dream (EIF)

Aug 27 2023 | By More

★★★☆☆      Patchy

Lyceum Theatre (EIF): Wed 23 – Sun 27 Aug 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

Life is a Dream, from Cheek by Jowl at the Lyceum in the International Festival, has moments of beauty and humour but never coheres into the spectacle it promises to be.

Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 1636 play is regarded as a classic of European literature. Its explorations of reality and dreams, free will and honour are set in Poland, where King Basilio, fearing heavenly portents, has had his son Segismundo locked up in a tower. Segismundo is later released to rule – but is it real or a dream?

Life is a Dream, Edinburgh International Festival. Pic: Javier Naval.

It’s definitely unfair, but it’s also unavoidable, not to keep thinking of how the play recently appeared on the Lyceum stage (or in mostly, on that occasion, across a built-up theatre floor). That was Wils Wilson’s version of Jo Clifford’s adaptation, in the first triumphant return from Covid-enforced darkness, and it was one of the most extraordinary things seen in Edinburgh in years.

Those are high standards to live up to, but when a company as renowned as Cheek By Jowl put a Declan Donnellan-directed, Nick Ormerod-designed production (their first in Spanish), and promise it is a ‘radical new version’, expectations are high.


Those expectations are largely confounded. There doesn’t seem to be anything particularly radical about a production (first staged last year) with a large element of self-consciously wacky comedy, whose costumes place it vaguely in the early 20th century, and featuring nudity and the odd inexplicable moment.

Life is a Dream, Edinburgh International Festival. Pic: Javier Naval.

Something else that is hardly novel is a two-hour plus performance with no interval, which now seems to be obligatory for big-ticket Festival events, When it works, it makes the production more engrossing; when it doesn’t, it is just annoying.

An interval might have helped, as the sequence that is modelled on 1960s US sitcoms, featuring exaggerated acting, together with canned laughter and other reactions, would at least have had some impact closing the first act. As it is, bookended by some decidedly more brooding episodes, it is bizarrely misplaced.


That brooding nature is accompanied by some over-emphatic lighting changes, as well as some odd production choices. Good use is made of the auditorium at times – there can’t have been this much running in and out of boxes at the Lyceum since the days of Ian Wooldridge – but on other occasions it backfires.

There are too many occasions when performers leave the front of the stage. At one point, there may have been some crawling around going on, but I couldn’t tell you, as, in common with a large proportion of the audience,I simply couldn’t see it.

Life is a Dream, Edinburgh International Festival. Pic: Javier Naval.

Ormerod’s design – a green metallic wall featuring a row of flapping doors – is well used for comic purposes, but seems to limit the action at other times. It is noticeable that the most striking moment comes during a battle scene when the doors are resolutely open and backlit.

The performances are certainly good enough – Ernesto Arias is on stage almost constantly, worrying away as King Basilio, while Alfredo Noval’s Segismundo has a compelling, animalistic fervour. Goizalde Núñez, as the servant Clarin, manages the more vaudevillian moments with humour, while Rebeca Matellán’s wronged Rosaura also has a real comic presence.

a bit ordinary

Having the play performed in Spanish certainly adds weight, but a good test of whether a production in another language really grips is how often you realise that the on-stage action is so compelling that you have missed one of the supertitles. This is not something that happens here.

You would have to try very hard to mount a production of Life is a Dream that is either truly bad or boring and this is neither of these. In the end, however, it is all a bit ordinary.

Running time 2 hours (no interval)
Part of the Edinburgh International Festival
Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay St, EH3 9AX
Wednesday 23 – Sunday 27 August 2023
Wed – Sat at 7.30 pm; Matinees Sat & Sun 2.30 pm
Tickets and details at

Life is a Dream, Edinburgh International Festival. Pic: Javier Naval.


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