It has been prophesised to Basilio, King of Poland (Malcolm Storry) that his son Segismundo (Dominic West) will be an evil and capricious monarch - as a result, the King imprisons his son and tells his subjects that he has died. However, as the King ages and worries about his succession, he decides to test his son to see his suitability for the crown. So he drugs him and when he comes round he is in his rightful place as the Crown Prince. However, it is not long before the prophesy appears to be correct as Segismundo defenestrates a recalcitrant courtier and forces himself on a lady of the court. Basilio realises he has made an error, drugs Segismundo once again and returns him to his prison, where he is left to reflect if what he had experienced was reality or a dream. But then rebels once again free him from prison -will he have learnt from his experience, or will the prophesy prove to be true once again?
Pedro Calderon de la Barca was one of the great playwrights of the Spanish Golden Age, and this is generally accounted one of his finest works. Its exploration of the nature of dreams and reality is very much attuned to modern sensibility, although Basilio's attempt to thwart fate echos that of Laius, father of Oedipus. However, it is an uneven piece of work. The subplot, where the wronged Rosaura (Kate Fleetwood) dons breeches in order to infiltrate the court and confront Astolfo (Rupert Evans) who has failed to honour his obligations to her, fails to engage at the same level.
Dominic West is magnetic, capturing the despair and elation of Segismundo as his is imprisoned and then freed, and then explores the limits of the power that he wields. As he wakes once again in prison, and tries to understand if he had lived or dreamed his moment of freedom, is the one moment where the play attain a truly Shakespearean level of self-reflectiveness. All other cast members impress, especially Kate Fleetwood as a believably muscular yet vulnerable Rosario.
Yet despite all these positives, and a dark and atmospheric design, somehow, for me, the play never completely came to life. Maybe it was because of too much tedious exposition of the back-story and the weakness of the sub-plot, or maybe a certain amount of intellectual disengagedness which divorced the ideas from the narrative drive and which not even Dominic West could overcome.
Or maybe it was simply that I had an appallingly uncomfortable seat at the end of the back row at the side of the circle, which does divorce one from the action somewhat. The Donmar's great virtue is top quality, challenging productions at affordable prices in a wonderfully intimate theatre. The drawback is that - consequently - tickets are like gold dust and sometimes one has to go with whatever ticket one can get, so perhaps that is why I was never truly able to immerse myself into the drama.