Life is a Dream – Jo Clifford’s translation of a 17th century screenplay by Pedro Calderón produces a work with contemporary overtones

  • Gareth K Vile
  • November 10, 2021

Anna Russell-Martin and Lorn Macdonald in the vibrant Life Is A Dream / Photo: Ryan Buchanan

Jo Clifford’s translation of a 17th century screenplay by Pedro Calderón produces a work with contemporary accents

Wils Wilson’s direction for Jo Clifford’s translation of Life is a Dream is a vivid and vibrant celebration of theater’s ability to address complex philosophical issues without sacrificing dynamic acting. Taking the 17th-century origins of Pedro Calderón’s screenplay as the basis for a dramaturgical reflection on the tensions between nature and culture, reality and illusion, and compassion and revenge, Wilson throws a Polish royal family into a series of battles and arguments. that exist in an ahistorical and abstract universe. Clifford’s adaptation retains Calderón’s modern rhetorical poetry while adding a more contemporary urgency, exposing the moral certainties of the Polish court and questioning both its values ​​and its resolutions.

The plot weaves a generic revenge melodrama (a woman seeks satisfaction after being defeated by an unfaithful lover) into a larger political situation as queen, after reading her son’s horoscope, determining that he should be locked away from his heritage. Through Calderón’s effusive flourishes, Wilson elicits deeper themes with the prince challenged to overcome this prediction and rise above his childhood trauma. Meanwhile, an abandoned Rosaura (Anna Russell-Martin) moves between male and female identities (and presumed qualities) before finding a solution in the prince’s ultimate assumption of power and compassion.

With a solid ensemble, Wilson oscillates between the abstract and the concrete: Lorn Macdonald’s prince, Segismundo, makes sudden transitions from lover to murderer and savage to courtier that balance raw symbolism and a recognizable psychology of trauma. John Macaulay’s Clotado exposes the miserable anguish of a man trying to reconcile loyalty to his monarch with duty to his daughter Rosaura. But while the characters are often representative of a specific moral issue, Wilson uses a Brechtian recognition of the play’s artificiality to communicate passionately with his audience.

If the finale, which weaves together the theme of life as a dream in the business of theatrical creation, is a little predictable, the casting of a performer of color as the servant Clarin invites further discussion. Laura Lovemore captures Clarin’s humor and mercurial cunning, but the production doesn’t take the opportunity to explore race as thoroughly as gender. However, it fuses beautiful live Nerea Bello songs with Davey Anderson’s songwriting in an elegant blend of physical dynamism and rhetorical eloquence. And with an intimate and immediate set design, it’s a superb showcase of Wils Wilson’s ability to find contemporary and evocative resonance in a script from the past.

Life Is A Dream, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until Saturday 20 November.

Life is a Dream


A prince destined to become a tyrant is imprisoned by his own father in this play by Pedro Calderon.

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