REVIEW: Life is a Dream Donmar Warehouse Covent Garden

PUBLISHED: 16:35 05 November 2009 | UPDATED: 16:31 07 September 2010

Four star rating Long ago, in a land far away (well, Poland, but that s not important), locked away in a cave, lived a man named Segismundo. This man once stood in line for the throne, until his father Basilio – hearing of a prophecy that foretold his son

Four star rating

Long ago, in a land far away (well, Poland, but that's not important), locked away in a cave, lived a man named Segismundo. This man once stood in line for the throne, until his father Basilio - hearing of a prophecy that foretold his son's tyrannical rule - banished him from the kingdom.

Pedro Calderon de la Barca's 1635 play kicks off with Segismundo's release and tentative coronation: will he prove a just and gentle leader or will he revert to tyrannical type and prove the prophets right?

This is a gutsy choice from director Jonathan Munby and main man Dominic West, who could have played it much safer than this ornate and deeply allegorical play, which is packed with winding monologues, deeply lyrical dialogue and near-mythical characters.

Fortunately, Munby's talented and nimble cast find something human and fresh in their roles, which grounds this potentially flighty play. They also navigate the shifts in tone excellently, rising to Shakespearean heights when necessary - all pomp and elegant delivery - as well as revelling in the play's sillier moments.

West's Segismundo is a bit restrained initially - I was expecting something much rougher and wilder - but as his character grows in stature, so too does West. He makes for a passionate and dignified King in later scenes, as well as holding onto a dry wit, which stops his performance spiralling into fantasy.

Helen Edmunson's finely balanced translation retains the wisdom and magic of de la Barca's script - there is a grand, poetical sweep to her writing - while also knowing when to lighten the atmosphere: 'Oh look - they all wear little black masks!'

Munby's skilful troupe has transformed what could have been a preachy, distant piece into an accessible and stimulating show, which reminds us of the fine line between a prison and a kingdom, reality and dreams, free will and fate.

Until November 28.

Miriam Gillinson

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