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Life is a Dream
Metro, 16 March 2009


Like your theatre large and loud?  Silo's Ensemble Project has a treat for you.  On a raked apron stage, with the audience sitting to each side as well as in the usual steeply banked seats, eight young actors under the direction of Michael Hurst throw themselves into this 17th-century Spanish play with such energy, you'd swear they believe their lives depend on it.

It begins with the sound of a horse, galloping furiously at us out of the darkness, and hardly lets up.  Women dressed as men are lost in a strange country, and much shouting ensues.  They discover a prisoner chained up in a tower.  More shouting, which turns to fighting so vigorous it would do a pro-wrestler proud.

The story begins to emerge.  They are in Poland.  A woman has been raped by a prince and must have her honour restored--either by his death or by having him marry her.  The prisoner's jailer is her father; the prisoner himself is the true heir to the throne--he has been locked up since birth because his mother, the queen, believes in astrology and bad things were foretold.  There are two other pretenders to the throne, cousins, who might marry in order to share the spoils.  One of them is, yes, the prince who ruined our woman-lost-in-the-forest.  It's all quite preposterous, of course, but we are not here for plot.

This is a production for actors to strut their physical stuff.  There is more fighting, a woman is beaten to death in front of us and another nearly raped; there is revolution and reconciliation.  There are echoes of Shakespeare's history plays, and Lear and Hamlet; references to Seneca; nods to Greek tragedy; even strange premonitions of Waiting for Godot.

Sam Snedden is a particularly forceful presence as the prisoner/prince; and Rachel Forman and Natalie Medlock both flaunt their allure.  In one of the few roles not entirely fueled by violent passions, Fern Sutherland does well as the aged queen, letting timing and diction stand in for the others' more naked aggression.

All of the cast find the dialogue difficult, especially as its archaic tone undermines the gravity of the story.  It's not clear how a grief-stricken Medlock, for example, is suppsed to say lines like, "You are a blatant lover and a coarse seducer," without getting a laugh.

The play is firmly rooted in medieval obsessions of personal honour and loyalty to the monarch, and such themes play havoc with 21st-century ideas about character motivation.  But the psychology is not entirely irrelevant.  Playwright Pedro Calderon de la Baarca knew that when sexual impulses are forbidden an outlt, people are liable to be consumed by lust, and his insight on that has hardly dated.

Modern ideas about politics are also recognisable beneath the principal themes.  Calderon wrote to reinforce the "natural order"--the utter authority of kings in a world where "God never lies, it is only men who lie."  But common humanity, especially in the form of a servant who takes on the role of a wise Fool, does manoeuvre its way to the fore from time to time.  She is our ballast in the story.

At the end, when order is restored by, ahem, "revolutionaries" who support the new king, one of their leaders pipes up:  "What about me?"  The king promptly pronounces her a "traitor who has succeeded", which makes her dangerous. So he locks her up.  It's a decidedly 20th-century note.

-Simon Wilson

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