After a life of confinement, a man is released into the ‘real world’ for a day. He finds life overwhelming and terrifying, and quickly descends into chaos. Soon, he’s re-incarcerated, wondering whether his day of freedom was all a dream.
These days, staging a play about re-emerging from a period of social isolation seems like a no-brainer. But Life is a Dream, which hits the Lyceum stage this autumn, was actually programmed pre-pandemic. SNACK sat down with director Wils Wilson to chat about the play’s continued relevance and the untapped wealth of European plays.
Can you tell us a little about the background of the show?
It’s a classic Golden Age play from 1635. When it was written, you would go for the whole evening and that would be your entertainment. So we keep joking in rehearsal that it’s like a whole evening of television. It’s got everything!
It’s got this dramatic, philosophical main story about a prince who’s locked in a tower because of this terrible prophecy. I think in a modern play, that would be it. But because it’s got the whole world in it, there’s a clown character, and a plot about a woman who has been left by her lover, coming to seek revenge on him. Because it was written for everyone to go see, it has this knack of appealing to every bit of yourself. We all want to be moved by the wonder of the universe, but we also want to have a laugh, and we also want to kill our betraying lovers! So it’s a really satisfying, rich, three-course meal.
How has the play being written ‘for everyone’ influenced your staging of it?
When we did some filming at Christmas, we built this floor over the stalls, and that’s still there. We’ve got this big, open space, with seats at stage level, and we’re also using the balcony. So it’ll have a kind of immediacy and intimacy for the audience – and also a kind of democracy. In-the-round is a very democratic way of staging a play, I think. Nobody gets ‘the perfect view’ because there isn’t one; there’s just multiple different views.
I have to ask, how does it feel doing a show about someone who comes out of isolation, now? It feels like the Lyceum almost saw the future.
It’s so strange that it feels so pertinent! But I think in a good story, you’ll find a resonance, and that’s what’s happened to us with this. It just kept on feeling more and more like the play to do right now.
Also it’s treating it in a poetic, allegorical way. It’s not a play about lockdown. So that’s even better, that it’s not literal. It allows your mind to be really active, for you to make your own links. My note to myself is: just tell the story really, really well!
The play is translated by Jo Clifford. How has it been working with her – the absolute legend?
It’s been amazing working with Jo. It’s a brilliant translation – it’s so clear and full of emotion and passion, and she loves the play. It’s been fantastic. The first thing we did was we sat together, and over the course of about three days we read the play to each other. And we just fell in love with it.
I want to chat a little about that original play – because I’d never really heard of it! And I just wonder about your view on why these classical plays in other languages aren’t so well-known over here.
I just think we go to Shakespeare. We don’t have to translate Shakespeare, and it’s such a massive part of the culture. It’s probably a bit of that cultural arrogance as well, in Britain – we don’t always look. The minute you look, there’s this big wealth of European literature.
It’s a great credit to David Greig [Artistic Director of the Lyceum], because it’s not easy for theatres to programme it – you know, ‘Should we do Romeo & Juliet, or should we do Life is a Dream?’ [laughs]. It takes a very special type of Artistic Director to say, do you know what, we’re going to do Life is a Dream.
How’s the rehearsal process with the cast been so far?
Well, they’re absolutely brilliant, for a start. Getting the right people in the room is such a huge part of any production, and the dark art of casting is not always recognised. We’re just so excited to be in the room – and a little trepidatious! But you really do get back into the zone really quickly. That energy – just the excitement of being back at work has been lovely.
The other side of it is that we’re just hoping to get away with it without any illness in the cast. We’re doing everything we can, but we have to be fatalistic and prepare as much as we can. Having said that, if I had to go on stage on the first night and go, ‘We lost the last week of rehearsal because of this and this’, I think the audience would be behind it. Because we’ve all gone through this time, we’ve all had those situations where – the best laid plans, you know? So cross your fingers for us!
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