After finding fame in the American TV series The Wire, in which he starred as moody Baltimore copy Jimmy McNulty, British actor Dominic West returned to the stage last night (13 October 2009, previews from 8 October) in Life Is a Dream, which runs until 28 November at the Donmar Warehouse (See News, 17 Apr 2009).
Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s 17th-century Spanish classic, in a new version by Helen Edmundson, examines the conflict between free will and fate by following the travails of banished heir to the Polish throne Segismundo, who still dreams of palaces, empires, freedom and revenge.
West is joined in the Donmar company by Kate Fleetwood, Rupert Evans, David Horovitch, Lloyd Hutchinson, Sharon Small and Malcolm Storry. The production is directed by Jonathan Munby and designed by Angela Davies.
Overnight critics all commended West for such a “brave”, “inspired” and “wonderfully strange” choice of role in which to make his more than “satisfying” stage comeback; as the “ferally charismatic” Segismundo, he “impresses throughout”. The other “standout” in a strong cast for critics was the “intriguingly predatory”, “sexy and touching” Kate Fleetwood, while David Horovitch, Malcolm Storry and Lloyd Hutchinson also earned numerous plaudits for their work in Jonathan Munby’s “gloriously impassioned”, “vigorous” and “witty” production of Calderon’s forward-looking 17th-century “masterpiece”.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “Calderon de la Barca’s Polish prince Segismundo is a brave and inspired choice of role with which to remind us of West’s power and personality, and Jonathan Munby’s gloriously impassioned and witty production proves an ideal setting for him. Calderon’s 1635 verse masterpiece ... has not been seen to any great effect in the British theatre since John Barton’s RSC production in 1983 ... The text follows the jog trot of Calderon’s eight-syllable line, expanding into easy-on-the-ear poetic prose, and West gives a bravura display of heroic wonder, anguish and determination, fearless and physical. There’s another classic Donmar design by Angela Davies, prison and court – where a great golden astrolabe signifies grandeur – beautifully differentiated in Neil Austin’s lighting, and there’s good music by Dominic Haslam and Ansuman Biswas, caged in the upper gloom. All the acting is well wound up ... In all, a marvellous revival.”
Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Instead of the self-destructive charm of The Wire’s boozy Detective McNulty, we are treated to a performance that combines lofty existential angst and poetic hyperbole ... The close-cropped West is Segismundo, a Polish prince shut up in a tower since birth because omens have suggested he will prove evil ... West does a good job of conveying his character’s petulance and brawling stupidity. Segismundo turns out to be a capricious savage ... The play pulses with biblical imagery of transience, monstrosity, sinfulness and vanity — for which Angela Davies’ spare yet artful set, centred on what looks rather like an orrery, creates a suggestive framework. Besides the ferally charismatic West, the standout performance is that of Kate Fleetwood as Rosaura, the spiritually determined woman to whom Segismundo is attracted. She exults in her passages of high rhetoric, but also has an intriguingly predatory stillness. It is brave of the Donmar to stage work by Calderón. Undeniably one of the giants of the Spanish golden age, he is a dramatist of forbidding baroque formality ... Jonathan Munby’s direction may be mostly vigorous and witty, yet the action is spasmodic ... While the acting is bracing, the attention to moral responsibility feels turgid, and the ending seems woefully glib.”
Dominic Maxwell in The Times (four stars) – “For his first stage appearance since The Wire finally turned him into a star in his own land, Dominic West has gone for something wonderfully strange. No easy-peasy Ibsens or Chekhovs for this lad. Instead, the British actor ... is playing a raging, imprisoned prince in this 1635 play by the Spanish writer Pedron Calderón de la Barca. It’s a satisfying return in a real bumblebee of a play: this should be so heavy with dreamlike semi-logic that it never takes off. And yet, the mix of tragedy and comedy, of serious soliloquising punctured by throwaway retorts, wins out against the head-scratching in Jonathan Munby’s smoke-ridden production ... It provokes in the cast an unusual and hugely appealing display of classical acting with a twinkle in its eye ... Not everything works. Dominic Haslam’s music tries to be evocative at moments where the performances can carry the strain. West, though, impresses throughout. He roars when he needs to, softens when he has to and eventually finds that real freedom is about living with limitations, not dreaming of omnipotence. When the production stretches its legs, particularly in its long speeches, it nests inside your head.”
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail – “Dominic West ... has had a radical haircut to star in a fascinating old play in the West End ... This political thriller is like a Shakespearean tragedy given a merciful ending ... West bridges the two conditions of imprisonment and kingship with ease. Perhaps they are not so entirely different. In a strong cast, Kate Fleetwood brings her astonishing cheekbones and flashing eyes to the role of Rosaura, a temptress whose own quest for an absent father surely owes something to the Greek myth of Theseus. Lloyd Hutchinson provides genuine comical detachment as Clarion the clown. The most interesting acting comes from David Horovitch as doubt-ridden courtier Clotaldo. Horovitch, with his beautifully resonant voice, intersperses his speeches (the night has several rich soliloquies) with gestures almost worthy of tai chi. Some may find this over the top but I was transfixed - as, indeed, I was by the entire evening's extraordinary tale.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) – “What a rich and disconcerting play this is. Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s drama, first performed in 1635, is one of the great works of the Spanish Golden Age, yet it also seems to look forward to such modern dramatic concerns as the flexible nature of reality and the possibility of freedom in a world apparently governed by fate ... This is a play that asks profound questions. How free are we? In seeking to avoid our fate, are we only making it more certain? And if life is indeed a dream, how best should we live it? ... Jonathan Munby’s production, staged in formal 17th-century dress, catches the play’s intricacy and subtlety ... The cast undoubtedly brings this rich, haunting drama to vivid life however, catching its humour as well as its profundity. Dominic West ... powerfully captures Segismundo’s baffled confusion and pain as he tries to work out what’s real and what’s a dream, while Kate Fleetwood is both sexy and touching in the breeches role of Rosaura. Malcolm Storry has a rugged grandeur as the implacable King, David Horovitch memorably suggests the discomfort of a loyal courtier torn between honour and human feeling, and Lloyd Hutchinson makes the potentially tedious role of the clown Clarion genuinely funny. And just as everything seems to be sailing trimly towards a happy ending, Calderón confounds us again with a conclusion that is nothing like as happy or reassuring as we expected. It’s the final touch on a masterpiece.”