Pedro Calderón de la Barca (Madrid 1600 – 1681) poet, playwright, Roman Catholic priest and soldier was an all-round kinda guy. A contemporary of the painter Diego Velázquez and the writer Miguel de Cervantes (creator of madcap adventurer Don Quixote), his life ended with that of a period of Spanish history called the Golden Age, a time when the arts flourished, largely thanks to the gold gushing in from pillaging the Americas. The play on the word ‘gold’ seems appropriate, though, as Calderón’s own plays, of which La Vida es Sueño (Life is a Dream) is the most famous of countless that he wrote, is full of word enigmas and ironies (title included), framed in a rigid rhyme scheme.
The play (click here for a plot summary) is comprised of lengthy speeches (soliloquies and half-soliloquies) in which characters (women and men) grapple with some of the greater problems of life – its rules and purpose, destiny versus free will, and so forth – all this might seem old hat now, but we’re talking the 17th century!! – some 200 years before Existentialism. Only William Shakespeare, who just preceded Calderón, pondered such great, controversial and dangerous questions (though I would bring him up, being British) – and he, in an arguably safer environment than that of staunchly Roman Catholic Spain.
The presence in Barcelona of the Compañía Nacional de Teatro Clásico is worthy of applause (and got it). Their stoical faith to classical (though abridged) texts and traditional performance style, period costume and that, is rare enough these days to be refreshing. Incorporating baroque musicians and singers, lively choreographed interludes, and shrewd comedy from the character of Clarín (David Lorente), the performance was pacey and entertaining, despite the long complicated speeches that you had to have studied (much like Shakespeare) beforehand.
An interesting choice for company director Helena Pimenta was to have a women (Blanca Portillo) portray the main character Segismundo – a prince imprisoned for most of his life in a tower by his father, Basilio the King of Poland (Joaquín Notario), after a prophesy reckons his son’s reign would be an utter nightmare. This casting choice creates a connection with the puzzling subplot (that some claim was written by somebody other than Calderón), in which Rosaura dresses up as a man to hunt down her lover Astolfo (Rafa Castejón), who has dishonourably dumped her for someone of more noble stock. Rosaura herself (played by Marta Poveda) is a vibrant, defiant character. Rosaura’s physical collapse, when the revelation of her own noble birth leads to an unbelievable emotional turnaround from Astolfo, is an appropriately shadowy ending for a play in which cynicism seeps into every success.
La Vida es Sueño – Life is a Dream
Teatre Lliure – Montjuic until March 17, 2013
**The play is in 17th century Spanish
2hrs without an interval
Thanks to Anna Aurich, and Ceferino López for the photos.