Pedro Calderón de la Barca was roughly a contemporary of Shakespeare's, and in this production of Life is a Dream the Spanish playwright shows many similarities with his English counterpart (an effect helped by Helen Edmundson's blank verse translation.) Nominally set in Poland, although only about as much as Twelfth Night is set in Croatia, it's a tragicomedy bordering on fairytale, featuring a cross-dressing heroine. Although if anything it resembles one of Shakespeare's Problem Plays with a collection of morally dubious characters and a rather harsh ending, brought into added focus in Jonathan Munby's production.
Basilio, King of Poland, listening to oracles of doom surrounding his son, imprisoned him from birth in an isolated tower. Decades later he decides to give Segismundo a chance, releases him and gives him ultimate power over the nation. Unsurprisingly after the way he's been brought up he turns out to be a brutal, half-feral ruler, and Basilio has him drugged and imprisoned again, with the instruction that he be told his interlude as Regent was just a dream. The succession passes to his cousins Astrolfo and Estrella, but now the secret is out, their enemies will seek to get Segismundo back on the throne.
It sounds like a ridiculously complicated plot (and this is only one strand of it) but luckily Munby's production is very clear and entertaining. Although Dominic West as Segismundo is the star name, and is excellent, the play isn't so much a star vehicle and gives everyone their moment. As if the confusion about which part of his life is real and which is a dream isn't enough, he also has to contend with a romantic interest who appears to him first disguised as a man, then in a dress, and finally as a sort of hermaphrodite warrior. Rosaura (KateFleetwoodHeyDidIEverMentionThatIWasInAPlayWithHerOnce?) also has a score to settle with one of the pretenders to the throne, Astrolfo (Rupert Evans - saddled with an iffy hairdo for most of it but back to *unf* levels once it gets mussed up at the end) and a secret even she doesn't know, connecting her to Segismundo's jailer, Clotaldo (David Horovitch.) The whole cast are fantastic as you'd expect, and the combination of a massive moral ambiguity plus an almost existentialist element due to the way the prisoner's view of reality has been manipluated, make for a pretty thoughtful play, but one filled with constant moments of light comedy. One of those productions that really makes you wonder why the play isn't better-known.
Life is a Dream by Pedro Calderón de la Barca in a version by Helen Edmundson is booking until the 28th of November at the Donmar Warehouse.