Calderon de la Barca’s Polish prince Segismundo is a brave and inspired choice of role with which to remind us of his power and personality, and Jonathan Munby’s gloriously impassioned and witty production proves an ideal setting for him.
Calderon’s 1635 verse masterpiece Life Is a Dream, in a “new version” by Helen Edmundson – excuse me, who did the translation? – has not been seen to any great effect in the British theatre since John Barton’s RSC production in 1983; even though that, too, was a studio affair, the prince did appear at the head of the third act popular uprising on a real live horse.
The horses and flurry of the battlefield are done here with sound and light effects, and even by actors flapping their own hands and leather jerkins. Segismundo has been imprisoned by his father, King Basilio (Malcolm Storry) because the omens are dodgy, and his mother died giving birth.
He fulfils all the forecasts when, released from captivity and heavily drugged – is he alive, is he dreaming? – he carries on tyrannically, throwing a courtier over the balcony into the sea, then trying to rape a wandering woman warrior Rosauro (splendidly done by Kate Fleetwood) and kill her father Clotaldo (David Horovitch).
Imprisoned again, he is given a second chance and leads the uprising to win back his father’s favour. He’s a good guy after all. There’s a wonderful ironic ambiguity about Rosauro’s reunion with the knob-head Duke of Muscovy (Rupert Evans) who jilted her, and in Segismundo’s uneasy acceptance of a dull princess (Sharon Small).
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 a 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, and Lloyd Hutchinson gets good laughs as the servant momentarily mistaken for a prince because he’s banged up and down on his luck. In all, a marvellous revival.