Life is a Dream presents us with a frame narrative, bookended with key character King Basilio speaking to us from a desolate dreamscape, or perhaps limbo, littered with elements of his subconscious and memories. And for the prologue, these elements, like dreams, are only loose remnants of a narrative. Soon they crystalise though and the king steps back to let the epic story unfold.
We have been thrust into a grand story – a re-imagining of the classic 17th Century Spanish play – of Polish royalty, authoritarianism, coup d’états, fate, and secrecy. In it, a prisoner called Segismundo has been held captive his entire life by his father, the aforementioned King Basilio. After an epiphany and a desire to test providence, the king experiments by letting his secret son out into the open to experience his true royal life, only to quickly regret it. However, Segismundo has now had a taste of freedom, as have some of his rebel followers… It feels like a classic allegorical tale, reminiscent of a Shakespeare Comedy, Tragedy, and History, all happening at once.
However, always at the edges of the heroic tale is a fraying of the illusion; a sense of the surreal through fourth-wall breaks, canned applause, and intermittent freezes in action. Throughout, a recurring question is posed and pondered by Basilio and Segismundo – the question of whether everything they are experiencing may be a dream, or at least whether they are being fooled into believing so. Segismundo even says, “Life is a dream, and even our dreams are dreams,” although the concept itself never seems to be explored even further. The saga only repeats its questions in slightly different ways.
The performers are magnificent, particularly Alfredo Noval as Segismundo, whose role demands intense physical and emotional labour. But there seem to be two different elements at play here: the central story of Segismundo himself, and the experimental examination of consciousness and the notion of dreams. The former entertainingly explores faith, power, and vengeance, whereas the latter feels oddly layered on. Nonetheless, the performance is captivating and impressive.