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Edinburgh International Festival 2023

Life is a Dream

Cheek by Jowl

Genre: Drama

Venue: The Lyceum


Low Down

A prince is chained in a mountain from birth, following a prophecy that he is destined to become a tyrant. Upon release, he discovers a world completely different to the one he’s always known. Is this reality, or is it all just a dream?


The Edinburgh International Festival present Life is a Dream by Pedro Calderón de la Barca co-produced by Cheek by Jowl, Compañía Nacional de Teatro Clásico (CNTC Madrid) and LAZONA, from 23rd August to 27th August 2023 at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh.

Cheek by Jowl produce plays that perform internationally and this is their first Spanish-language production, performed by an ensemble of Spanish actors. The play itself has been heralded as “one of the 40 great plays of all time” according to the programme – and Cheek by Jowl and director Declan Donnellan have created a “radical new version of a Spanish classic”.

Donnellan steers this grand themed play with attention to detail at every turn, this is masterful direction of a play, with Shakespearean tropes of a royal kingdom, family dysfunction, a tyrant, prophecy and wronged birthright – and who will inherit the throne? Calderón de la Barca’s storytelling structure of the play is very well designed, and I found that the story unfolds and builds very clearly when hearing the actors speak in Spanish while reading surtitles in English quickly.

Designer Nick Ormerod’s set consists of a dark green wall less than half the height of the proscenium with many narrow invisible doors, where actors appear and disappear quickly, in fact in the opening scene the entire cast of nine actors burst forth from these doors exuberantly!

Lighting designer Ganecha Gil bathes the set and stage area in shadows and light to denote different spaces, such as King Basilio’s castle and the dark tower prison.

While this play was written in about 1635 the era of this version of the play acknowledges it’s heritage in the costume design that is appropriately regal for the King but more radically updated and exaggerated with the zany wide shorter trousers of the courtiers.

All nine actors are outstanding and there is a quality of collaboration and listening as well as the physicality and clarity of their individual characterisations and dynamic ensemble work in the cast. The programme does not provide the cast with their character names, but this is a strong cast all around: Ernesto Arias, Prince Ezeanyim, Rebeca Matellán, Manuel Moya, Alfredo Noval, Goizalde Núñez, Irene Serrano, Antonio Prieto and Jorge Uson.

Donnellan also uses the space at the front of the audience very effectively when King Basilio speaks to the court or the people. Several fascinating boisterous scenes are staged in the aisles of the audience that add excitement. This is a political play as well as entertaining and one can not fail to think about parallel power play situations happening in the world today.

Perhaps the root of the play is so bound in a daunting situation that Donnellan chooses to infuse humorous moments from the ensemble who do several wonderful free form eccentric dance sequences at the beginning, middle and end of the play to a very lively modern song! These are fun zippy interludes that lighten the mood…and allow us time to consider whether what we are watching is real…or just a dream!