Life's a Dream
Pedro Calderon de la Barca
Adapted by John Barton and Adrian Mitchell
Blue Elephant Theatre
Review by Jackie Fletcher
It was around about the early '80s that interest in Renaissance drama peaked in Britain with a plethora of small-scale productions of Shakespeare's contemporaries. It was around this time that John Barton and Adrian Mitchell adapted Calderon's classic for a breathtaking minimalist production in The Other Place in Stratford. In the ensuing twenty-odd years, full Renaissance costume productions by students or young graduates eager to express their love of the period have all but vanished from our smaller venues.
I was only pondering this fact recently, on the top deck of a bus passing the Bedlam Theatre in Edinburgh, once a 'major' venue for costume productions of 'tragedies of blood' during the festival in the days when student union drama societies filled the pages of the Fringe programme. Their notable absence these days must have something to do with trends and fashions. In this post-postmodern and post-contemporary age, as they are calling it these days, men in Renaissance padded bloomers and velvet doublets are not in vogue except with the tourists at the Globe.
It was surprising, therefore, to find that Caz Binstead's production of Life is a Dream is a fully-fledged period piece. And I wouldn't want to give the impression that there was a hint of the student Am-Dram society about it. Binstead is a graduate of RADA and most of her cast are graduates of E15 Acting School. This is a competent piece of work on all counts, and, with a few hiccoughs, thoroughly professional.
It used to be said of John Barton that he chewed razor-blades for breakfast. While this might refer to his directorial style, as an ancient Cambridge academic and associate director of the RSC, Barton knows his stuff when it comes to the drama of the period. Mitchell, always a most lyrical poet in terms of language, was an apt co-translator. This is a very fine text, the language flows like honey; it caresses your ears and effortlessly seduces you into listening and wanting more. Binstead and her cast have paid detailed attention to the modulations of the language and speak the text beautifully.
Calderon himself was one of the great Spanish playwrights of the early/mid-seventeenth century and this is his masterpiece. It is a tale that intertwines the fates of several characters in almost equal measure and brings them together in a plot that blends politics and passions with metaphysics. We have a cross-dressing heroine, tales of 'mispriz'd love', a prince imprisoned from birth due to a pejorative prophecy, a doddery old monarch with his head in the stars, rebellious subjects, long-lost children, manipulating courtiers, and loyalties tested time and again. Life is a Dream embraces most of the plot and character permutations of Renaissance drama, but the text has such dignity, the metaphysical pith is so appealing, that one has to take it all seriously.
Amongst a competent cast, Vito Hind as Clotaldo stands out for his charming delivery and portrayal of a complex central character, making this loyal courtier/disloyal lover/happy father something of a lynchpin. John Persson should get a pat on the back for keeping a straight face in a wig and make-up that doesn't pass muster in a small space. There was an uneven quality to the costumes, some of which were very professional and quite beautiful, but others rather redolent of the Christmas panto.
More attention to the movement would have enhanced the action. Philip Lee as Clarion was very nearly a perfectly fine and funny clown. The interpretation was there, the slapstick fun intact, and the movement adept in all but one respect. Much muscular tension rendered his movement too forceful for such a small stage. The scenes of violence, such as the stage fighting, required more thought and accomplishment.
The production stands out even more in the Blue Elephant. This fringe venue has a fine, black box space, large, accommodating café/bar and all-round congenial atmosphere. Situated in the centre of a housing estate off the Camberwell Road, it has a reputation for supporting new writing and experimentation. I hadn't expected to find it vying with The Globe. However, to return to my original ponderings, where these days do young aspiring directors of Shakespeare and his contemporaries get the chance to take a risk, to be noticed, to forge a career? Caz Binstead and her cast certainly deserve a chance, and I'm grateful for the Blue Elephant for making their space available.