The Great Theatre of the World

Pedro Calderón de la Barca, adapted by Adrian Mitchell
Arcola Theatre
(2007)

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Pedro Calderón de la Barca was a hugely prolific lyric poet during the latter part of the Spanish Golden Age. A fervent Catholic, he took holy orders at age 51 and continued to write until his death, by which time his cannon included, amongst many other works, some 80 "autos sacramentales", short allegorical dramas on sacred themes.

The Great Theatre of the World is one such drama, presented by Arcola Theatre in an adaptation by Adrian Mitchell, himself a poet with a handsomely long bibliography that spans poetry collections, novels, plays, libretti and a not inconsiderable number of translations of great literary works.

This verse play concerns itself with how humans live their lives. God, creator of all things, in festival of his power, conceives that humans will act out their lives on his "favourite planet" as actors in a play. He will have the best seat in the house, observing the action from heaven, and at the final curtain he will decide who played their part the best, inviting those judged winners to a banquet.

He gives World the tasks of stage manager and prompter to keep the proceedings moving should the players fall over their lines, but assigns the roles himself as he knows that, given their own choice, "everyone would want to play the king"!

God, played with a wonderfully authoritative tone by Madhav Sharma, presides over the troupe with the patience of a father knowing that not all his children will like the part they get, but "each receives the part that suits best" and he responds benignly to the anticipated cries of "why me?" explaining that everyone's soul is equal.

Having given out the roles of Beauty, Peasant, King, Beggar and Rich Man to his cast, he then bestows on them freewill and sits back to watch. Armed with props, costumes and the ultimate stage direction "Do good for God is God", the actors play their roles until Sad Voice - a song from offstage - calls first the King and then the others to their death, to which they go some repentantly but all unwillingly except for Beggar who regards death as her release from pain and hunger.

Predictably at the time of judgement, Beggar is rewarded with a seat at the promised banquet whilst Rich Man goes to Hell, Stillborn Child to Limbo and the others to the anguish of Purgatory to atone for their sins before being allowed to join the banquet.

World is obedient to God to the letter and, even when facilitating the action of the play, observes and comments and here the verse is in good hands with Wunmi Mosaku, newly graduated from RADA. Only she and Sharma are wholly able to recite the text without the audience being able to anticipate the rhyming or rhythm of the next line.

The rest of the cast did not execute their lines poorly, just with less elegance. They are also all required to dance and sing an original score by Andrew Dickson which gave a depth to the piece that would have been rather thin and unsatisfying without it.

This is without criticism of Mitchell's translation which successfully finds the wit from the text, particularly in the knowing asides from World such as "If you think our play is short, well so is life".

The action of the piece is kept at a good pace under the direction of William Gaskill and Aoife McMahon gives Beggar welcome energy and conviction. The design elements are minimal but effective, with a fun pulley system bringing on the props and a simple lighting effect producing a haunting image of Rich Man in the tortures of Hell.

In spite of all these strengths, one question remains: to whom does this speak in 21st Century multicultural Britain?

Calderón was preaching to the converted - his audience would not have questioned his proselytising - today his audience is a society where churches continue to argue within themselves and the followers of polytheistic faiths live cheek by jowl with atheists. Never more so has "good" been in the eye of the beholder.

The interest in this piece lies not in what it can teach us about how to live now, but how lyric drama was written then.

Until 18 August 2007 - Arcola Theatre Studio 1 - 8pm.

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti