Auckland Festival, Herald Theatre
March 13-April 10 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

TAKE the words of a 17th Century Spanish playwright, translate into English and then stage in a modern theatre setting with some up and coming young NZ actors and what do you get? Not quite a dream, but the play does make for an interesting night out.

Director Michael Hurst is nothing if not ambitious. Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s play is a landmark of Spanish-language literature, dealing with such elemental themes such as nature versus nurture, free will, the true nature of consciousness and the morality of rulers. What if you had the chance to avert a predicted disaster by imprisoning an innocent? Would it be right? Set in Poland, concerning the soap opera-like intrigues of the royal family, it is full of grandly drawn characters spouting long philosophical soliloquies. The translation by Beatrix Christian stays true to the complex storyline and poetic language, without much deference to ‘modern’ themes and ideas.

On this backbone, the production hovers somewhat uneasily between modern and classical theatre traditions. The staging is modern and even innovative. Costumes (by Victoria Ingram) are elegant with strong lines, referencing everything from WWI soldiers to 1950’s bathing fashion. The set design (by John Verryt) and lighting (by Jeremy Fern) is powerful – a stage projecting out into the audience and high sliding doors that conceal. This brings the action out right into our midst and allows us a full view of the actors. Change in environment from cave to palace is accomplished simply and effectively by means of drapes and lighting effects, although sometimes the lighting is too harsh to see the actors’ expressions.

Unfortunately, the complex language and ideas of the script sometimes seem too much for this young cast to handle. Although delivery is clear and passionate and there are moments of raw power – Sam Snedden as the tortured prince Segismundo is particularly effective – this production never really succeeded in suspending me in the waking dream of the theatre. I was too busy unraveling the words, which were beautiful but required concentration. Likewise the plot needed some work to keep up with, dealing with cross dressing lovers (unlike Shakespeare, not cause for comedy), death, rape, revenge and palace politics.

Armed with this heavy script the cast keep up a high level of intensity. The only character to provide respite from the onstage emoting is Clarin (Renee Lyons), a refreshingly down-to-earth soldier with an oddly Kiwi approach to life (and accent) who gives us a series of witty backhanders.

Physicality, however, is one thing that this cast does well – the fight/rape scenes have a convincing rawness, and the real explosive rounds fired from the gun help with the adrenaline rush. Natalie Medlock as Princess Estrella demonstrates her knack for physical comedy when the smitten Segismundo attempts to ravish her.

Overall, this production, while patchy, resurrects a fascinating text which deserves much wider exposure because of its themes. These echo for me the ideas raised by Sleep/Wake, another production in the Auckland Festival. Like the tortured but finally vindicated Segismundo, we realise that making the most of each moment and living as honorably as we can is the only way forward, for “Life is a dream from which only death awakens us.”