Life is a Dream

Nov 3 2021 | By More

★★★★★   Glorious

Royal Lyceum Theatre: Fri 29 Oct – Sat 20 Nov 2021
Review by Hugh Simpson

The Lyceum’s Life is a Dream is a necessary and exquisite reminder of the possibilities of live theatre. Originally planned to end the 2019/20 season, this production has emerged into a completely changed world.

In practical terms, the Lyceum still has its stalls and stage boarded over, leading to an in-the-round production with seats around the performers and no-one very far from the action. The original design of Georgia McGuinness, realised by Alex Berry, provides a distressed, hollowed-out theatrical space that is part thrust-stage, part-proscenium arch, part setting for a group of travelling street entertainers.

Laura Lovemore playing Clarin. Pic: Ryan Buchanan

Calderon’s story of Prince Segismundo who is locked in a tower by the monarch due to evil portents attending his birth, and later restored to power while told his new status may be a dream, is one of the classics of the Golden Age of 17th century Spanish drama but can seem remote to modern audiences in time, setting and concerns.

Jo Clifford’s version, however, shows that – for all of the talk of princely virtues and astrology – its themes of power and abuse, of family and revenge, of illusion and reality, are entirely relevant.

The text contains hints of Shakespeare, a smattering of Moliere, and it is unsurprisingly reminiscent of some of Clifford’s other works. There is also more than a hint in Wils Wilson’s direction of Brecht’s epic theatre and the many Scottish groups that it informed – something that is echoed by the presence in the cast of the inestimable Alison Peebles, co-founder of Communicado.

accessible and involving

If this sounds either incoherent or forbidding, then nothing could be further from the truth. Clifford’s script is accessible and involving, and the production is so engrossing that a two-hour plus running time without an interval – something that would normally be a massive drawback – is completely natural.

Anna Russell Martin playing Rosaura, Lorn Macdonald playing Segismundo. Pic: Ryan Buchanan

The dialogue switches seemingly effortlessly. The servant Clarin has a tremendous line in demotic, with a couple of jokes that really shouldn’t work rescued by the gloriously studied insouciance of Laura Lovemore.

Conflicted courtier Clotaldo, played with upright dignity by John Macaulay, has a stiffer, more archaic vocabulary, but it is still beautifully evocative.

Somewhere between the two linguistically is Segismundo, whose rage at being brutalised and desire for revenge are realised with a marvellous, spitting intensity by Lorn Macdonald.

thoroughly sympathetic

Rosaura’s story of betrayal and dishonour is traditionally often thought of as an unnecessary sub-plot, but here it is given a much more central role, with Anna Russell-Martin’s performance a frighteningly driven but thoroughly sympathetic one.

Lorn Macdonald playing Segismundo, Anna Russell Martin playing Rosaura, with Kelsey Griffin in background. Pic: Ryan Buchanan

There is similar believability to Peebles’s Basilio, the queen who takes the place of the king in the original. A part that could seem remote in historical terms and oddly symbolic is instead completely human and utterly compelling.

The rest of the cast – Dyfan Dwyfor’s oleaginous Astolpho, Kelsey Griffin’s ambitious and brittle Estrella, Krystian Godlewski’s two unfortunate attendants– are equally impressive, but it is the cohesiveness of the ensemble that is most striking.

Nerea Bello’s onstage singer/musician, helping to bring to life Davey Anderson’s plangent music, also contributes hugely. Kai Fischer’s sepulchral lighting and Janice Parker’s movement direction add hugely to a production that is mesmerically enticing. Adopting the air of being thrown together, this is of course the product of a fierce intelligence, with Wilson’s eye for theatrical impact being unerring.

suitably ambiguous

It may show humanity in a less than perfect light, and it may even be somewhat messy. However, the provisional nature of much of it is undoubtedly the point, down to that decayed set, and the compromise that is the staging. The unresolved, unsatisfactory air of the ending (that recalls the pat, order-is-restored feel of Shakespearean tragedies) seems suitably ambiguous here.

Anna Russell Martin playing Rosaura. Pic: Ryan Buchanan

The proximity of the action to the audience undoubtedly helps, but it is only a small contribution to the atmosphere. Few productions in recent years have seemed as inclusive and immersive. None have been better at summoning up the feeling of community – indeed, almost of communion – that the best live theatre can provide.

As much as anything seen in Edinburgh in years, it fills your head for hours afterwards with whirling fancies and endless possibilities.

From the cast preparing in full view of the audience beforehand – something that has often been done but rarely seems as part of the show as it is here – to the stress laid on the transient, almost illusory nature of an actor’s life at the end, there can be few productions that chime better with our fragile, unreal times.

So much threatens the theatre, and everything else in our lives, that this may all be nothing more than whistling in the dark. But what a glorious tune it is.

Running time 2 hours 10 minutes (no interval)
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, EH3 9AX
Friday 29 October – Saturday 20 November 2021.
Daily (not Sundays) at 7.30 pm
Matinees Wed, Thurs, Sat at 2.30 pm
Information and tickets at

Alison Peebles playing Basilio, Lorn Macdonald playing Segismundo. Pic: Ryan Buchanan


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