Life is a dream when one is lost in thought and Rambert’s new production of Life is a Dream has a tendency to become becalmed in high art thoughtfulness. Kim Brandstrup’s adaptation of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s seventeenth-century play is often an absorbing mix of stylish spectacle, fluid movement and labyrinthine music but also permits only illusory glimpses into any narrative intent. “I didn’t get it”, said my companion, on leaving the theatre, and I feel sure that her sentiment was shared by many of those around us.

Dancers of Rambert Dance Company in Life is a Dream
© Johan Persson

After fifteen years at Rambert’s helm, Mark Baldwin’s last commission is a first, for him, since it is not since 1979 that the company has devoted a whole evening to a full-length narrative work; thus, breaking the mould of touring triple bills, which has long been Rambert’s calling-card.  

Calderón’s scenario concerns a Polish prince, Segismundo, who has been imprisoned in a tower (by his father, the king), since infancy. On being released and told that he is the prince of Poland, Segismundo becomes violent and is reincarcerated after just a few hours of freedom, whereupon he is persuaded that all that happened outside of his gaol was just a dream.  

Brandstrup sets Calderón’s baroque text in the hall-of-mirrors that is a play-within-a-play.   Instead of going back to the time of its setting and première (1635-36), Brandstrup places its performance in the avant garde theatre of communist Poland, circa 1959; opening with the play’s director drifting off to sleep in a dusky room, dreaming of that day’s rehearsals as his actors try to make sense of Calderón’s allegorical tale.

Sharia Johnson, Juan Gil and dancers of the company in Life is a Dream
© Johan Persson
The two acts of this dance theatre interpretation of Life is a Dream are veiled visions of the play: the cavernous rehearsal room doubles as the tower; and the second act scenario represents the world beyond that space, with the Wells’ stage opened up to the bare walls (representing freedom, one supposes) as the scenes of the director’s dreams become some sort of reality.  In the closing image, the director– loosely based on Jerzy Grotowski, whose Laboratory Theatre was founded, in the southern Polish city of Opole, in 1959 – shares Segismundo’s fate, as he comes to prefer the illusory performances in his imagination and walks back towards the refuge of the dream space in which we first encountered him.

To confuse matters more in this fusion of mid-twentieth century experimental Polish theatre and a play from Spain’s Golden Age, fast approaching its quincentenary, Brandstrup identifies multiple cast members in the same role. There are at least two “directors” – Liam Francis is that figure we first encounter, asleep on his desk, but a barely-recognisable Miguel Altunaga appears as the director, organising rehearsals, in the former’s dreams. There are also multiple casts rehearsing the play (2, 3 or 4, it’s hard to tell) with the incarcerated prince played by Juan Gil, amongst others. 

Holly Waddington’s costumes appear a strange mix until one realises that the contrast between Gil’s crushed-velvet pantaloons and the close-fitting dark suits (with what appear to be whitewashed shoulders), worn by Joshua Barwick and others – representing “Mods” fashion of the late 50s - is intended to delineate both the play’s original period and its imagined performance, 400 years’ later.   

The film noir atmosphere is stylishly enhanced by the lighting of Jean Kalman and the excellent filmic set designs of the Quay Brothers. The feel of an isolated, decrepit rehearsal space – somewhere between a deserted warehouse and a student garret – is accentuated by a wooden mannequin, bare bed frame, vintage portable radio and the windows’ watery shadows wavering around the walls.  

Continuing the cultural theme of post-war Poland, Brandstrup utilises a mixture of compositions by Witold Lutosławski: a man who experienced the execution of his father by the Bolsheviks; was captured by the Nazis in WW2; just escaped the razing of Warsaw, following the 1944 Uprising; and persecution by Stalin; with much of his work lost or destroyed during these times. Unsurprisingly, there is much darkness, grief, anger and lament in Lutosławski’s music but it is also tempered by an ebullient optimism; a mix that suits both psychological extremes in the bridge between dreams and hard-edged reality that inspired Calderón’s play.

A consistent, enigmatic style infuses both the design and choreography in Brandstrup’s work – two duets have a particularly dreamy, fluid quality – and the performances are suitably chimerical (Nancy Nerantzi, Simone Damberg Würz, Hannah Rudd and Edit Domoszlai are key peddlars of this ethereal quality).    

The central concept of the original text being recreated through Polish laboratory theatre creates a meandering maze of tangled ideas, which only a detailed knowledge of the play and its contrived setting would help to unravel.  But, if you are content to allow these expressive stylistic visuals to wash through your imagination, then it will be worthwhile.