As the preview of the Oxford Spanish Play’s La vida es sueño began, I felt as though I had just been shaken from a dream. A 17th-century work by Pedro Calderón de la Barca and one of the most eminent plays of the Spanish Golden Age, La vida es sueño, or Life is a Dream, is tangled in themes of existentialism. This year, directors Teresa Flórez and Luis Orellana are bringing a modern, Oxford audience a nightmarish tableau of existence that etches questions about reality, illusion and fate straight onto the audience’s consciousness.
La vida es sueño elaborates the story of the Prince of Poland, Segismundo. Following a prophesy that he is to bring about the downfall of the Kingdom of Poland, his father, King Basilio, locks him away in a prison at birth. When issues regarding the succession to the throne arise, King Basilio resolves to bring Segismundo to the court to reveal his identity. However, at court Segismundo is not entirely himself. King Basilio drugs him so that Segismundo can be returned to the prison. When Segismundo awakens in prison again, his entire experience at court has the appearance of a dream.
Indeed, appearances are what makes this interpretation of Calderón’s play so surreal and absorbing. The use of aesthetics is crucial to the creation of the ethereal atmosphere that causes the audience, like Segismundo himself, to question the fragments of the world they are witnessing: are the scenes hallucinatory pieces Segismundo’s drugged reality? Or the non-drugged reality of the other characters of the play? This toying with illusion is manifested through the use of costumes, make up and music, all of which appear to be a distorted reflection of reality in a warped mirror. Meanwhile, the use of a monochrome colour scheme for the costumes conveys all characters as pieces on the chess-board of life. And by dressing the protagonists in black and white— black clothing for the tumultuous Segismundo and white clothing for the King’s niece and nephew, Astolfo and Estrella – we are forced to question whether concepts of good or evil are quite so black and white.
The actors themselves fill the shoes of their characters excellently. As with the distortion of reality within the costume design, the acting proves to be a magnification of real life. Though masked behind pale white faces and black eyes, the actors’ expressions, dialogue and physicalities caricature reality. The physicality of the chorus is also exceedingly engaging. As witnesses of the occurrences on stage, they prove to be both a dynamic support for the action and also, as they frolic upstage in gaggles or charge towards the audience with swords, a channel to bring the audience into this illusory world.
Indeed, La vida es sueño opens and reveals all the joys and surprises of a music box. From painted, porcelain smiles to the hypnotic trance of dancing characters within the clockwork of fate, the sweet tune of the Spanish language (aided by the use of subtitles) will lead you to contemplate whether what you are seeing on stage is, in fact, just like a dream.
Life is a Dream will run in the Oxford Playhouse from Wednesday 24th to Saturday 27th April. Tickets are available from £9.50.
PHOTO / Oxford Spanish Play