Theatre: Nature vs. nurture at the heart of a masterpiece

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ON THE programme of the official Edinburgh Festival there is so little drama worth seeing once, let alone reviving, that it is a pleasure to welcome to London a production that scored a striking success up there in 1998. Teaming a Catalan director, Calixto Bieito, with a British cast, this dark existentialist vision of Calderon's brilliant Spanish Golden Age drama, Life Is A Dream, demonstrates the interpretative benefits and drawbacks of this kind of theatrical internationalism.

Bieito has been unable to help the actors avoid sounding stilted and unspontaneous in some of the lengthier speeches. Heavily outweighing that, however, is the inspiring sense of a director liberated by the freshness of his foreign actors who do not, like his compatriots, approach the text burdened with cultural baggage. Looking back to Sophocles and forward to Sartre, the play focuses on the young prince, Segismundo, whose predicament reminds you of the man in the Chinese sage's story who dreams he is a butterfly and wakes up to wonder whether he is a butterfly dreaming he is a man. In Calderon's play, there is a pressing political dimension to this. To prevent him fulfilling an astrological prediction that he will one day usurp the throne, Segismundo's father has had him kept locked in in a lonely tower since birth.

Anxiety over the succession prompts a change of heart in the monarch. The hero is drugged, deposited at court and persuaded that his previous existence was a dream. His subsequent behaviour raises in a peculiarly gripping and difficult form the question of social conditioning versus genetic inevitability. At all events, his violent unruliness results in his being drugged and bundled back from where he came; as the play disturbingly crosses between apparent dream and reality, it poses questions about identity, responsibility and free will, often with an eerily premonitory feel.

The jangling immediacy is arrestingly conveyed in a production which rescues the play from the stiff, over intellectual approach of other Spanish directors. The piece is performed on a desertedly lit circle of grey shingle overhung by a looking glass which tilts and turns to suggest the weird-ness of what is happening. True to the play's unsettling games with reversal, this mirror eventually confronts the audience with its own reflection, as though we rather than the play were the theatrical illusion.

In the difficult central role, a half-naked George Anton gives Segismundo a stunningly uncensored unpredictability, a cross between a highly sexed animal and an innocent child. Show him a woman, and the next second he is burrowing under her dress. A masterpiece unforgettably reclaimed.

To 2 Oct, 0171-638 8891