Life is a Dream by Pedro Calderón, translations by Beatrix Christian, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Set and costumes by Marg Howell, lighting by Kimberley Kwa. With George Banders, Brendan Barnett, Johnny Carr, Andrew Dunn, Julia Grace, Sophie Mathisen, Vanessa Moltzen, Sarah Ogden and Josh Price. VCA Drama Company 2008 @ 28 Dodds St, closed last weekend.
Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
The stage is a vision of outrageous squalor. In the corner, a stained sheet curtains a small space (which when it is drawn back, reveals a toilet stuffed full of rubbish). Torn scraps of paper are strewn on the floor, and peeling wallpaper covered with graffiti hangs limply from some of the wall. The only thing missing is the smell, which, if this were a real room, must surely be a mixture of old cabbage, old socks, shit and stale blood.
Some kind of squat, perhaps. A scrawled column of crossed-off days on the wall suggests a prison. A scribbled sign announces that this is “Poland”. An imaginary space, since this is a theatre; a stage surrounded on two sides by audience members and inhabited by nine actors. For the duration of the performance there is nowhere off-stage, unless you count the curtained-off toilet where an actor might temporarily escape the audience’s gaze.
Some actors are sitting around a table, making tea. They are talking in low voices, and their conversation eddies into laughter at inaudible jokes. Another sits in a corner near a pile of dog-eared books and picks out some texts and reads them: fragmentary histories of the Cossacks, of Samarkand and the Silk Road. The actors are doing nothing, they are passing time. Every now and then, one of them has what appears to be an epileptic fit and there is a sudden urgency: her mouth must be wiped, she must be stilled. Then they return to their banal conversations and inscrutable rituals.
Although the actors are clearly performing, they use their real names. It is a little like a version of Big Brother, set maybe in some foetid Eastern European rooming house, and holds a similar voyeuristic fascination. The action swirls about the stage in a kind of brownian motion, and slowly begins to reveal patterns of power, desire and conflict: likes and dislikes, who listens, who obeys, who decides, who is ostracised.
Gradually these relationships begin to coalesce and formalise into story-telling. Sophie Mathisen tells her fellow inmates to enact Sleeping Beauty, as children do (“you be the prince, you’re the princess, you stand there…”) They do so more or less willingly; some of them subvert the story, some of them don’t want to be part of it. But this is merely a crude prefiguring of the larger story which the actors will enact during the course of a dense 80 minutes.
The banal and degraded reality depicted here is the raw material – the “rag and bone shop of the heart” – from which emerges a fragmented performance of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s most famous play, Life is a Dream. Calderón was a 17th century Spanish playwright of astoundingly prolific output – he is on record as having written more than 200 plays. Life is a Dream is, as its title suggests, among other things a philosophical questioning of the nature of reality, couched as an epic fairytale about the royalty of Poland.
Briefly, the plot concerns Basilio (Andrew Dunn), King of Poland, who has a son, Sigismundo (Johnny Carr). His birth kills his mother, and among other evil portents leads Basilio to believe that Sigismundo will grow up to be an evil and tyrannical king. So he is taken away and shackled in a prison cell. As Sigismundo reaches adulthood, Basilio begins to wonder about his succession, and orders that he be brought to the palace and awakened by the courtiers, to see whether he can transcend his predicted fate. If he behaves like a beast, he will be taken back to his prison and told he has had a dream.
Sigismundo wakes up, tries to kill the king and rape a woman, and is duly returned to prison, where his guards convince him that it has all been a strange and vivid dream. But now a bunch of Polish revolutionaries know of his existence; they release him and overthrow the king. Sigismundo, who is naturally confused about reality, decides against revenge and forgives the king, deeming that even in our dreams, kindness matters. Various pairings are married off. The End.
With its various complex divagations, the play is enacted with admirable economy by the performers, the passionate beauty of Beatrix Christian’s translated fragments emerging organically from the apparent chaos of the performance. The toilet doubles as Sigismundo’s prison; he is taken out in a state of physical abjection, his elbows and knees painfully chafed and scabbed, his wrists red with the rubbing of shackles. And this is where the concentrated realism of this production begins to pay off.
We are told several times by performers that “this is not a game”, and the boundaries between a mere “game”, a play, and an easily defined “reality" become more confused, more disturbed. The scabs seem as real as the boiling water in the kettle, the games between the performers take on darker and more confronting resonances. And it becomes clear, through the medium of performance as much as through the language, how human beings make stories as a way of surviving a meaningless world, and how these stories create their own realities.
Certainly Life is a Dream generates a sense of extreme unease which is difficult to trace, a cumulative effect reinforced by a various soundscape of ambient noise and music. The potency of this show is driven both by the disciplined focus of the performers, who remain intensely present in their various selves, and by Daniel Schlusser’s direction, which underpins the performance with an acute attention to emotional and linguistic rhythms.
The balance between contrasts is very finely judged, and seldom falters: the performance oscillates between clarity and confusion, high poetic and aggressive banality, movement and stillness, comedy, the threat of actual violence and – suddenly and surprisingly, with that directness that stabs the heart – elegiac lament. This is hard to achieve because the performers must continually generate and sustain its realities; it is work that flirts with its own nothingness, and which must walk that narrow line where failure beckons at every moment.
I thought it remarkable and beautiful theatre. Life is a Dream is one of the most successful explorations I’ve seen of the poetic connections between imagined realities both on stage and off. Although I’m not sure whether “success” or “failure” are appropriate words here: this is one of those works which makes such terms feel wholly redundant. I’m glad I was there.
Picture: Johnny Carr as Sigismundo in Life is a Dream. Photo: Jeff Busby