Cheek by Jowl’s Life is a Dream (La vida es sueño) at Barbican Theatre  review

Declan Donnellan’s Spanish-language production runs until 16 April

Rebeca Matellán in Life is a Dream Javier Naval

Cheek by Jowl’s first Spanish-language production, the classic La Vida es Sueno (translated as ‘Life is a Dream’), by giant of the Spanish Golden Age Pedro Calderón de la Barca, is an uneasy dream for those watching, but thankfully only a nightmare for its characters.

A king of Poland imprisons his son fearing a prophecy that he’ll prove to be a tyrant: his later dithering over whether to let the prince Segismundo rule anyway leads jailer Clotaldo to assure Segismundo that his brief freedom was only a dream. Hard to stop that train of thought once it’s going: cue rampage and uprising. Would Segismundo have behaved so badly were he not abused with neglect his whole life? Either way, Poland is nearly razed before peace is found.

Declan Donnellan’s direction has its gaze trained on the destabilising horror of Segismundo’s lifelong seclusion and subsequent gaslighting by both of his imprisoner-fathers. Fernando Epelde’s sound design makes extensive use of Carmen Miranda’s ‘Cuanto Le Gusta’: it’s Segismundo’s only comfort in his tower, and a zanily cheery accompaniment to the cast’s antics, shuffling themselves like a pack of cards around King Basilio (a soft, searching, self-doubting Ernesto Arias). He’s haunted by what he’s done to his son and what it brings about for his kingdom, onstage and impotently reaching out as scenes play before him, without him.

Touring internationally before and after its Barbican stint, this co-production with Spain’s Compañía Nacional de Teatro Clásico and Lazona Productions features an agile ensemble of Spanish actors. Alfredo Noval’s Segismundo has a Caliban physicality for both comedy and pathos, aware of the distance between himself and those who’ve been allowed to be people all their lives. So, of course, he interacts with both objects and other people with a furious, childish appetite, at first stammering in his cell, unused to words, then tottering and buffeted by the newness of the world when unleashed on the court. Pretender to the throne is his cousin Astolfo, a wonderful bore, played by Manuel Moya droning interminably on as if pulling endless scarves from his mouth, hoping to team up with the rather more taut and together Estrella (Irene Serrano). Goizalde Núñez’s Clarín is the gracioso part, a mild and wry chatterer chancing his luck at every opportunity, though truly kind.

Though the world turns over a few times for the characters, their sense of the order of things being always somehow wrong draws together the lighter romantic plot of vengeance-seeking heroine Rosaura (an upright and clear Rebeca Matellán) with that of the royal succession. Characters learn things of each other dreamily; a sitcom sequence featuring the lovers emphasises the unreality of Rosaura and Astolfo’s tussling over a locket concealing their prior history. Segismundo wonders at the beauty of both Rosaura and his scheming cousin Estrella, the one a servant to the other, questioning the order of the celestial system his father has studied throughout his life. Neither king nor prince knows where to begin in their berating each other: whose recriminations were given primacy by the prophecy?

Ganecha Gil’s lighting finds sly textures in the low wall of green doors making up Nick Ormerod’s set; as the kingdom is turned inside out by civil war, Gil allows pink to encroach unsettlingly. Clever breathing space is carved out within the play’s two hours without interval by often bringing the lights up on the audience as courtly witness: the world expands and there’s the possibility that violence can be averted. Back in his cell and wondering at the “dream” Clotaldo tells him he’s had, as Segismundo grasps at reconciling freedom and royalty with imprisonment and pain, the lights come up again. He’s unable to see all of life as anything but a dream, which allows him to act “decisively” afterwards, insulated by a grinning distrust. The story’s neater-than-neat ending is reached smoothly, promptly, and with great disquiet.