La Vida Es Sueno - Life Is A Dream

Wed 24th – Sat 27th April 2013

reviews

Catherine Coffey

at 23:44 on 24th Apr 2013

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It is not often that you find yourself confronted with the problems of reality versus illusion, fate versus free will, and good versus evil, as well as by the sight of a distinctly glamorous death salsa-ing around the stage with her latest victim but all this, and more, can be found in the Oxford Spanish Play’s latest offering, Calderón de la Barca’s Golden Age ‘comedias’, La vida es sueño.

The Playhouse’s director lauds the ambition of the production and it certainly can have been no mean feat to bring this rather lengthy and complicated plot to the stage. As is practically always the case with first nights there were a number of glitches which will no doubt be ironed out by this evidently energetic and inventive group over the coming performances. The excellently chosen music was, at times, rather too loud, drowning out the characters’ lines which did not always match up with the English subtitles provided for non-hispanophones such as myself. A problem which will probably have to be resolved upon the Oxford Spanish Play’s next outing also arose from the positioning of the subtitle-screens: it was almost impossible to pay proper attention to the acting with neck uncomfortably crooked to read along at the same time – more central positioning would have made a considerable difference.

These quibbles aside, I have nothing but praise for the level of effort that has clearly been poured into this production. Special commendation must be made first of all to all those involved in set- and costume-design, lighting, and, as already mentioned, the excellently atmospheric soundtrack. Similarly the cast, by and large, deserve their fair share of applause. Although the decision for Carlo Ferri’s Oracle to speak in English (the only character to do so) somewhat mystifies me, his purposefully jerky and stilted style lends a suitably unsettling air to the role of the blind seer of the future. Tiffany Liu and Olivia Peacock also manage to exude eeriness in their largely silent roles as the dead or absent mothers of two of the play’s younger protagonists. Highly stylised physical acting is, in many ways, the play’s strong point, with not only all the lead actors proving themselves more than adept in this respect, but with the supporting cast also demonstrating impressive mastery of an area sometimes rather neglected in amateur productions.

The passions evoked by Ekaterina Spivakovsky Gonzalez’ spurned Rosaura, or Antón Morant’s tormented Segismundo are, for the most part, relayed convincingly and movingly, with Gonzalez also making child’s play of the occasional switches to far more flippant moods for her character, which might well have seemed rather incongruous in the hands of a lesser actor. Perpetual flippancy and frivolity, even in death, is intrinsic to the character of Rosaura’s servant Clarín, played to perfection by the hilarious and versatile Teresita Valverde Mójica, whose dance with death may be one of the most entertaining spectacles ever to grace the Playhouse stage. A far more understated but no less appreciable comedy is brought to the stage through Alejandra Albuerne’s heavily-painted Estrella of the doll-like posture and waspish facial expressions, a character who proves slightly too much for her more sedate intended, Duke Astolfo, a role smoothly executed by Roberto Rubio.

Despairingly observing the actions of their juniors (for which they themselves bear a not inconsiderable amount of responsibility), Rosaura’s father, Clotaldo, played by Francisco Hernández Ibáñez, and Artem Serebrennikov’s King Basilio provide two comparably solid linchpins to the plot, although these two characters are also certainly not without their foibles. Ibáñez fills his role with a mixture of drollery and pathos, meaning that the audience can not help but pity and warm to him, while the eminently expressive Serebrennikov so well inhabits the role of the would-be sage of a king, whose intentions seem to be in the right place even if the justness of his actions are questionable, that he attracts almost all of the audience’s attention the second he sets foot on stage.

All in all, bar a few technical snags, and perhaps also the imbalance between the length of the first ad second halves, La vida es sueño is a highly enjoyable and imaginative play, brought to life by a clearly highly imaginative and talented theatrical group who, I hope, will enjoy their production as much as I did.

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Matthew Davies

at 09:44 on 25th Apr 2013

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Great theatre manages to cast its spell through the seamless consonance of language and visual imagery. This is difficult enough when a play is staged in the vernacular; when the cast isn’t speaking the language of the audience the difficulty is compounded. It’s precisely this problem which prevents ‘La Vida Es Sueño’ from being as effective as it could be – the unfortunate necessity of English surtitles distracts from the boldness of the staging and the clarity of the play’s aesthetic.

A motif of light and darkness dominates ‘La Vida Es Sueño.’ Antón Morant portrays a larger-than-life Segismundo, the hunched and bestial prince of Poland. Segismundo has been locked away since birth, and for much of the play he is shrouded in darkness. Standing in marked contrast are the effete Astolfo (Roberto Rubio) and the cosseted Estrella (Alejandra Albuerne), courtiers at the palace of Basilio, king of Poland (Artem Serebrennikov). Basilio’s court and Segismundo’s tower are different worlds entirely, and the characters who inhabit them are as distinct from one another as the chiaroscuro lighting which dominates the sets. Caught between extremes, the cast do a very good job of bringing conviction to a play which could have easily turned into an exercise in navel-gazing. Of particular note is Teresita Valverde Mójica’s Clarin, who infuses a spark of humour and absurdity into some of the play’s bleakest moments.

The lighting and other visual aspects of the play are highlights. Metallic colours predominate, although the overall aesthetic is more homespun than industrial. Particularly towards the climax of the play, the lighting becomes increasingly harsh, lending a touch of violence and melodrama to the proceedings, and throughout the play the atmospher is at turns dreamlike and intense. Music and sound are used in ways which are unsubtle but frequently effective. While at times the loud, blaring music detracted from the performances of the actors, at others it added to the dreamlike energy of the play. At one point midway through act 3 music was used in a particularly bizarre and entertaining way to add a touch of levity to the proceedings.

Unfortunately, the play was let down by issues with the surtitles. Having to keep glancing up at words projected overhead detracted from the solid performances of the actors and occasionally-stellar production choices. In particular, the text projected seemed to occasionally become out-of-sync with what was being spoken, and at times lines were displayed far before they were needed to. ‘La Vida Es Sueño’ is well worth seeing, and the cast should be lauded for their ambition in staging a play in Spanish, but potential viewers should be aware that technical issues could prove problematic.

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