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First things first – what is Life Is a Dream All About?

Life is a Dream is one of the best-known plays from the Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca. It blurs the lines between dreams and reality, destiny and free will.

The play follows the story of Segismundo, a Polish prince who has been locked in a tower since birth. The astrologers predicted that if Segismundo were allowed to roam free he would leave nothing but death and destruction in his wake. His father, King Basilio, heard the prophecy and decided not to take any chances... until now.

Basilio wants to give his son one chance to disprove destiny, so lets Segismundo out of the tower. Instead of proving the prophecy wrong, Segismundo goes on a violent rampage, and Basilio swiftly locks him back up. King Basilio then tries to convince Segismundo that everything that happened was just a dream.

Segismundo escapes his prison a second time and war breaks out between him and King Basilio. The ensuing violence lets the audience discover once and for all whether Segismundo is really the monster he’s always been described as.

Is this play based on real historical events?

Thankfully not! Life is a Dream is far from realistic. Not only are all the characters fictional, but there are also some highly fanciful moments! Notably, the first character we meet, Rosaura, is introduced on the back of a hippogriff. This plot device is never explained nor is it brought up again, luring the audience further into this half-real, half-fantasy world. Like Segisumundo, we are left wondering how much of this is a dream.

However, the historical context of the play definitely had an impact. At the time of the first premiere of the play in 1635, the Spanish Inquisition was still in full force and persecuted those who did not convert to Catholicism. Throughout Europe, suspicions ran high, and throughout the 16th and 17th centuries witch trials plagued Europe and North America. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, people were very superstitious, like King Basilio, would rely on occultists and witches to heal their children, to guarantee a good harvest and to read their futures.

In the play, the chaos is set into motion by prophecies, and many of the characters are guilty of letting stars, soothsayers and second sight take control of their lives. Written at a time when many people deeply believed in the power of destiny, Calderón’s play asks whether we should pay attention to superstitions.

Who was Pedro Calderón de la Barca?

As one of the most famous and prolific playwrights of Spanish Golden Age drama, Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600–1681) was a master at creating plays filled with psychological depth and dramatic structure. His predecessor, Lope de Vega, pioneered the various forms and genres of Spanish theatre, but Calderón spent his time perfecting them.

Calderón was a renowned perfectionist and could not stop changing his plays and amending them long after they had been published. This perfectionist streak didn’t stop his output however – throughout his lifetime Calderón wrote over 200 plays.

At the beginning of his career he prioritised writing mostly secular plays for commercial theatres. When Lope de Vega died in 1635, Calderón was recognised as his literary successor, but after Calderón joined the priesthood in 1650 he all but left secular plays behind. Instead, he focused on writing religious plays known as autossacramentales. Autos sacramentales were religious plays that were performed on the streets across Spain. Calderón’s religious plays were so popular that in Madrid between 1647–1681 the only autos sacramentales performed were by him.

So he’s the Spanish Shakespeare?

Sort of! William Shakespeare predates Calderón by about 30 years, but both Calderón and Shakespeare have become literary giants. Shakespeare is renowned across the world as England’s National Poet, while Calderón has a similar legacy in Spain and is known as one of the most distinguished writers from the Spanish Golden Age. Fans of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream will see the similarities between Life is A Dream, as both plays ask big questions about the human condition and blur the lines between reality and fantasy.

Who is creating this production?

Cheek by Jowl is an international theatre company who have been producing plays in multiple languages for over 40 years. It's directed by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, who met years before the formation of the company, back in 1972. They actually decided to form Cheek by Jowl when they were living in Edinburgh, and Ormerod was working at our very own venue, The Lyceum.

Speaking of Shakespeare, the company is heavily inspired by him – the phrase ‘cheek by jowl’ comes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to describe living (or performing!) side-by-side.

Cheek by Jowl is probably most famous for their productions of Shakespeare’s plays – the last play they performed at the Festival was Measure for Measure in 2016. However, they also perform canonical plays from all around the world – including The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi and Anton Chekov’s Three Sisters.

What’s special about this production of Life is a Dream?

Cheek by Jowl’s production of Life is a Dream marks their first Spanish-language production. It’s also the first play from the Spanish Golden Age they’ve produced since 1989, when they created a production of Lope de Vega’s Fuenteovejuna performed in English.

Although Life is a Dream takes place in Poland, Cheek by Jowl’s adaptation draws inspiration from its Spanish heritage. They’ve chosen to base the costumes on modern day Spanish military costumes, and by doing so, preserved a lot of Spanish cultural influences present within the text.

Where can I buy tickets?

Life is a Dream is at The Lyceum from 23–27 August 2023.

This production of Life Is a Dream is co-produced by Compañía Nacional de Teatro Clásico (Spain) and LAZONA.