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EIF Review: Life is a Dream ****

Michael Cox reviews a production that 'impresses and entertains'.

Life is a Dream is a classic Spanish play—a fable and a political satire that works as well now as when it was first written centuries ago during Spain’s Golden Age of theatre by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Set in Poland, the action follows prince Segismundo: chained in a tower all his life due to a prophesy that his rule would bring ruin to the country and the death of his father, King Basilio. It’s a convoluted tale of intrigue, honour and vengeance filled with role reversals and double crosses.

There is no denying the stagecraft involved in company Cheek by Jowl’s production. Director Declan Donnellan stages Dream with a collection of flourishes: it’s well designed, the company are uniformly great and the pacing is engaging. For a two-hour production without an interval, the action whizzes past.

And yet, EIF with their scheduling have, perhaps unintentionally, set this company up for a stumble. The production is presented within the Lyceum, and their own production of Life is a Dream from less than two years ago still lingers. It was the company’s return to form after the COVID lockdowns, and it revelled in one thing that this production lacks: ambition. While Donnellan’s production is slick, it isn’t grand. To watch this production within the very same space means that both productions can’t help but to be compared to the other, and Cheek by Jowl’s isn’t the one that leaves the stronger impression.

Is it fair to compare these productions? Perhaps not. It’s also quite possible that many audiences for this wouldn’t have seen the Lyceum’s, and for them they will be greeted with a worthy production that impresses and entertains. But to those of us who have seen both, this particular Dream is more of an afterthought.

Life is a Dream performs at the Royal Lyceum as part of the Edinburgh International Festival until August 27, 2023.

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