“The Spanish Hamlet”, I am told of La Vida Es Sueño. “The most well-known play in the Spanish speaking world”. A play that deals with fate, illusion and reality. A Golden Age play, with all the mixing of philosophising, stock-character humour, and beauty of language that that entails. The play, to clarify, is in Spanish – the reason I am able to tell that the language is beautiful is due to the rather helpful subtitles, based on Michael Kidd’s translation, that are projected onto the wall.
The title means “Life is a Dream”, but the dream we are presented with is far from the idyllic image this conjures up. There are no pastoral meadows here – it is the Spanish Hamlet, after all. Instead we are given the staccato visions of the English-speaking Oracle.
Indeed, there is something ominous about the play. The juxtaposition between the late sixteenth century action and the stunning stylised costumes helps add to this disconcertion. The costumes are frankly, dazzling, as is the whole style of the play. One could simply go to watch what one could deem an incredibly useful stage costume and makeup lesson. This rather clinical description perhaps does not do justice to the monochrome majesty I am presented with, however. The pale face makeup of all the characters creates an otherworldly, ghost-like atmosphere, in a production where often the lighting has it that darkness pervades with light brush strokes of chiaroscuro and heavenly shadow-play.
I would not say that this is a normal play-going experience, in the fact that I feel very much known to be an audience member, ostracised, almost, by spectacle. There is one moment, for example, where the entire cast charge at me before a battle scene, their pasty faces bathed in red-light.
Sometimes the acting feels actively staged and contrived, which most of the time is captivating, but other times feeds into the detached, unsettled feeling that hangs over the play. However, there is much passion from the main character Segismundo, who succeeds in bringing out the scarily animalistic side of himself terribly convincingly.
It seems to me that this is an event of theatre rather than simply a play, and one would have to be prepared for that when deciding to view it. I am in the odd paradox of not thinking I would want to see it, yet being certainly glad that I did.