Edinburgh Festival: Theatre: Freedom's prison of illusion

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The Independent Culture
MANY PEOPLE know the Chinese sage's story of the man who dreamt he was a butterfly and then woke up to wonder if he was, in fact, a butterfly dreaming he was a man. An arresting variation on this theme of confusion between illusion and reality is dramatised in Life is a Dream, the 1635 play by the great Golden Age Spanish dramatist, Calderon de la Barca. It is presented now in an austerely gripping production by Calixto Bieito with the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company.

Set in Poland, the play focuses on Segismundo, a young man who has spent his life imprisoned in a tower because of a prophecy that he would one day overthrow his father, the king. Anxiety over the succession prompts a change of heart in this monarch, who conducts an experiment. The wild, instinctual Segismundo is drugged and brought to court, where he revives to a baffling new identity as a richly arrayed king.

Social skills are not high on this youth's list of accomplishments, though, and soon, after attempted rape and murder and the successful defenestration of a servant, he's drugged, bundled back to the tower, and persuaded it was all a dream. It's only after he is released a second time by soldiers supporting his claim to the throne that Segismundo begins to gain some mastery over himself and his existential predicament.

A compelling mix of half-naked, highly sexed animal and marvelling, innocent child, George Anton plays the hero with a terrific suddenness and uncensored immediacy. Presented with a desirable body, this Segismundo sniffs it hungrily. When he's thrown back into prison, he masturbates at the memory, or imagined memory, of female beauty and it looks like the pure struggle of someone yearning to regain admission to a blissful dream.

The play charts a progress from superstition to reassertion of belief in man's free, shaping will. But, as he chillingly condemns the soldier who freed him to life imprisonment as a dangerous traitor, Segismundo also shows that he's learned the benefits of Realpolitik where genuine feeling is often a liability. So even the real world is a kind of stage managed fantasy. Bieito communicates this in a memorably timed final coup. The mirror somersaults, flopping to a position where it reflects the theatre audience and the house lights go up to create the illusion that the spectators are the show being watched from the stage. That reversal awakes you to the greatness of Calderon's Dream.

Runs until 29 August (0131 229 9697)

Paul Taylor