Rambert’s Life is a Dream, performed at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal takes inspiration from Pedro Calderón’s seventeenth-century play of the same name, in which an imprisoned prince is given a single day of freedom. Unable to adapt to society, the prince goes on a cruel rampage, and is then recaptured and told that his brutal memories are a dream and didn’t happen. This leads the prince to an existential crisis, unable to differentiate imagination and reality; when eventually released a second time, he approaches the world with more care and wonder.

Brenda Lee Grech, Hannah Rudd and dancers of Rambert in Life is a Dream
© Johan Persson

Choreographer Kim Brandstrup has not created anything close to a retelling of Calderón’s play. The theme of the haze between imagination and reality is prevalent but conveyed through fragments of the original plot without any proper narrative to provide continuity or context. Since dreams rarely follow a linear narration, this is possibly an attempt to invoke dreamlike qualities, which is clever in theory but in practice mostly just confuses. The single idea of experiencing the world for the first time and becoming feral is repeated three times with different dancers playing the same two characters without any signposting to let the audience understand the intention. Calderón’s play is not so famous that it can be reasonably assumed the audience will know the story going in, so these vague allusions to the play without anything to provide an anchor means the audience will be lost.

The action has been transported from a prison cell to a derelict rehearsal room, and the prince is now a director falling asleep after a long day of rehearsals. Two dancers (Liam Francis and Miguel Altunaga) play the single character of the director, their light shirts marking them out against the luxurious dark velvet costumes of the other dancers. A sinister mirror dance between the duo ends with the pair diverging and Altunaga (probably meant to be the dream version of the director) giving Francis (the same sleeping director experiencing the dream) a cheeky little wave – the only piece of humour in an otherwise shadowy, angsty production.

Liam Francis and Dancers of Rambert in Life is a Dream
© Johan Persson
The setting change, from prison to rehearsal room, allows for the inclusion of a creepy tailor’s mannequin prop, and delightful smatterings of choreography where the director puppeteers some of the dancers’ movements and provides hand cues to instruct the live orchestra. (At different points both Altunaga and Francis do this.) There is, however, still a lot of prison imagery, particularly in the presence of iron window panels, an uncomfortable-looking prison bed and a straitjacket. The straitjacket is a metaphor for not being able to interact with the world, reflected in the choreography and the story when, finally able to touch, each of the dancers in the straitjacket “touch too much”, as the programme euphemistically describes. In the second act we see the director (Francis) unable to interact with the world around him, reaching for dancers only to brush past their twisting bodies or leap over them as they duck. His caution at going too far, mirroring the prince in the original play’s learned respect for the world, leaves him unable to stay in bed with a girl, and he returns to the familiar, bleak set of the first act.

The music enhances the brutal soviet prison aesthetic, even though the action doesn’t take place in a prison. Composer Witold Lutoslawski’s experiences in occupied Poland under Nazism then Stalinism can be clearly felt in his compositions. While not atonal, there is no discernible melody, rather a texture of contrasting timbres mirrors the action onstage. Rough high strings, menacing low brass and intense percussion are juxtaposed with a squeaky solo violin.

Edit Domoszlai in Life is a Dream
© Johan Persson
A projected video is used to give the first impression of the hostile outside world: a stormy hurricane, a loud passing train and three cross-shaped electricity pylons recalling ideas of Calvary (more prisoner imagery). This is different from the outside world that the director visits in the second act, which is actually just the theatre backstage. This cleverly reinforces the main theme of the production, the blurring of the boundary between reality and pretend. The backstage is the reality that performers retreat to after the show is over, but the backstage set onstage is not the real backstage.

There is a fine line between intrigue and confusion. The production had a lot of potential; the striking set, brooding music, captivating costumes and troupe of highly-talented dancers promised a great evening. It is a shame that there was such a frustrating lack of clarity that the overall effect was a visually pleasing but exasperatingly inaccessible production.