Sadler’s Wells Theatre,
London

23 May 2018

Maggie Foyer

On reading the programme synopsis, I was relieved to see that choreographer, Kim Brandstrup, had simplified the eponymous 400 year-old drama by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, a story so twisted and convoluted it ties your brain in knots. Brandstrup instead based his plot on the fragile interface between dreams and reality. It’s as simple and as complicated as that but despite shed loads of talent on stage, it didn’t capture the imagination as a profound dream experience should.

A director muses in the rehearsal room while his actors play out the roles of Segismundo and Rosaura who visits him in prison. Segismundo has been wrongfully imprisoned but when released his violent resentful behaviour results in his re-incarceration. When he is again set free, he is a more sanguine reflective man. In a convoluted way, the director mirrors his life: the prison/ rehearsal room becoming the world of dreams the outside world a problematic place of uncertainty.

Life is a Dream by Kim Brandstrup, Sharia Johnson and Juan Gil Photo: Johan Persson

Sharia Johnson and Juan Gil in Life is a Dream by Kim Brandstrup
Photo: Johan Persson

If meaning was obscure, the dance was upfront and amazingly good. Rambert, whose dancers are among are most diverse and interesting, are given a fertile platform for their talents. Segismundo’s volatile behaviour supplies ample material for many shades of encounters played out on couples and groups. In the gloom of the setting caught in shafts of light the duets are gritty and intense with the best saved for last.

Brandstrup is a master of his art and one who seems to enjoy the episodic and fragmented, surely the stuff of dreams. His choreography, elegant, fluid and inventive, found its voice in these moments with no clear beginning and end appearing from the shadows and sliding back into the dark.

Edit Domoszlai in Life is a Dream by Kim Brandstrup Photo: Johan Persson

Edit Domoszlai in Life is a Dream by Kim Brandstrup
Photo: Johan Persson

The set design by the Quay Brothers is a major player. The stage furniture is sparse with the magic arising in the projections. They create a dream world encompassing everything from heavily barred prison windows to the wild wind-swept sea. Waters rise and swirl; the power in the hidden depth evident in the swell and eddying. They stir the imagination but never reach that elusive moment when half waking from a dream so real and precious you long to find your way back through the barrier of consciousness.

Strangely Act 2, the real world set in a barren gloomy vault occasionally pierced by acidic blasts of light seemed equally unreal and definitely less appealing. There was little in the choreography or costuming to indicate a solid, stable existence and, understandably, the director heads back to his dream world as the curtain falls.