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Life is a Dream, Donmar Warehouse | reviews, news & interviews

Life is a Dream, Donmar Warehouse

Life is a Dream, Donmar Warehouse

A Spanish drama of the Golden Age is given bright new life

A play featuring false imprisonment, family members losing and re-finding each other, fathers and sons, forgiveness and reconciliation: it sounds like late Shakespeare. Pedro Calderón de la Barca's Life Is a Dream is indeed just post-Shakespeare - from 1635 - and hails from a culture, Golden Age Spain, which determinedly pushed drama on from where Shakespeare left it,  producing over decades a torrent of story-rich plays at a time when England seemed to have given up the dramatic ghost.

Life Is a Dream is by far Calderón's best-known work, outside the Hispanic world at any rate, and in Jonathan Munby's new, sobersided production of it at the Donmar Warehouse, its themes of mental isolation, vengeance and the illusory thinness of life are given flesh, blood and bone through some terrific acting. There was always going to be a frisson about this opening, with Dominic West as the protagonist Segismundo: West's swaggering performance as McNulty in The Wire, weirdly contorted Baltimore accent and all, has conferred sexy stardom on this solidly British actor, and I feared he or the director might let the production lean lazily on this.

Not a bit of it. In the Donmar's cavernous, box-like space, the play's horizons - from reeking dungeon to flowery court to Polish mountains (Poland is a neat disguise for Calderón's 17th-century Spain, tormented by succession concerns) - are beautifully drawn in Angela Davies's unfussy design and Neil Austin's evocative lighting. The story, commendably daft - appropriately, too, for a romance - is really there to flag up some big questions: can man's nature evolve successfully out of nature? Can we ever be sure the conditions we surround ourselves with have meaning? Can abuse be forgiven?

Segismundo's father, King Basilio (craggy Malcolm Storry), has had his son incarcerated, secretly, after a prophecy foretells mayhem were he to rule. Basilio reveals the fact to his court, which elects to let Segismundo join "real" life, to see how he behaves: appallingly, as it turns out - he murders and threatens rape - and West, in resplendent white livery, relishes Segismundo's bestiality, though we fall short of outright condemnation as we never forget his penetrating lament for lost freedom at the play's start. West, also, is hard to dislike. A romantic sub-plot involves an abandoned bride-to-be, Rosaura, played with attractive lightness by Kate Fleetwood, closing in on the court in disguise to avenge herself on the fickle Count Astolfo (a straightlaced Rupert Evans), now apparently in love with sharp-tongued Estrella (Sharon Small, rather resembling a Liaisons Dangereuses-era Michelle Pfeiffer).

Segismundo is re-incarcerated and forced to question the parameters of his existence: what reality, between birth and death, defines life on earth; is everything, horror and happiness, merely a test for the hereafter? Realpolitik kicks in: the people turn on Basilio, who loses a war against the released Segismundo's rebel forces. Segismundo forgives his father, marries Estrella, and insists that Astolfo return to Rosaura. She realises that Segismundo's jailer, Clotaldo, magnificently creepy in David Horovitch's rendering, is her long-lost father and all ends on a Winter's Tale note of sweet, if contrived, resolution.

But there's nothing hollow or tepid about this production. The acting is all first-rate (with an agreeably Oirish turn by Lloyd Hutchinson as Rosauara's factotum Clarion), everything's audible and brightly articulated, though Helen Edmundson's text often struggles to match Calderón's baroque intricacy. But there are no tricks here. West, above all, triumphs with his vigour and clarity, and I daresay there won't be a hotter ticket for Wire fans - and non-Wire fans - in the West End this autumn.

Life Is a Dream continues at the Donmar Warehouse until 28 November. Book online here.

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