The greatest works of literature have an uncanny way of resisting academic categories-if not inventing a genre, they’re usually obliterating one. Nothing could be truer of Calderón’s masterpiece Life Is a Dream, a tragically charged comedy from the Spanish Golden Age that anticipates the metatheatrical clowning of Beckett and Pirandello while unintentionally recalling the desperate philosophical conundrums of Prince Hal and Hamlet. Not even the Royal Lyceum Theater Company’s somewhat cliché-ridden production can diminish its brazenly original charm.
The fable unfolds on a bare stage kitted out with only a circle of gravel and a hovering baroque mirror. Bare-chested and bestial, the Polish prince Seigismundo (George Anton) growls in the dark at the unfairness of having been locked up since birth. His father, King Basilio (Jeffery Kissoon), has been trying to outsmart the astrological predictions that his son will become a bloody tyrant, though he eventually decides to free his only heir and place him on the throne. As soon as Seigismundo begins to fulfill the violent prophecy, however, he is returned to prison and told that his 15 minutes of royalty was just a dream. It is from this newfound knowledge of life’s ephemeral glory that he begins to piece together a working morality replete with the spirit of forgiveness.
While Calixto Bieito cleanly conveys Calderón’s tale, his directorial choices (ranging from the overly familiar mise-en-scène to his cast’s cloying jokiness) seem rather pro forma. Two performances stand out: the seismic Olwen Fouere, as the wronged young woman Rosaura, and Sylvester McCoy, as her vaudeville-esque servant. The rest passes as mundanely as a night’s sleep.