I have been a fan of Mr West's since my obsession with The Wire began earlier this year, and so I was really thrilled to be able to see him on stage. And I must say that neither he nor the play itself disappointed me.
I'm playing catchup at the moment, so things are a little out of order. Hence, after telling you about my Saturday evening's activities in my post yesterday, I now need to backtrack to share with you all the delights of my Friday night's entertainment. I was at a conference about translation in the Early Modern period, held at St. John's College, on both Friday and Saturday. The talks were fascinating, but on Friday I had to slip off after the morning session, in order to meet up with my mum and catch the bus to London. I spent the entire bus journey in a state of High Excitement, for that evening we were first going to enjoy a delicious meal at one of my favourite London restaurants, and then we had a date with Dominic West at the Donmar Warehouse, to see one of my most highly anticipated theatre events of the season: Life is a Dream.
The evening got off to a great start with dinner at the lovely Mon Plaisir in Covent Garden's Monmouth Street. We were early enough to have the chance to wander around Covent Garden first, and I managed to pick up a couple of Christmas presents, as well as one or two things for myself (!) in between admiring the festive decorations and laughing at the street acts that crowd the piazza. Mon Plaisir is London's oldest French restaurant, and it is always a good choice for excellent but reasonably priced Gallic cuisine. On Friday evening I enjoyed a particularly good duck pate with grated truffle, before moving on to some delicious partridge. I was also particularly pleased to spy a favourite red wine on the restaurant's list: Bourgogne Passetoutgrains, a glass of which was the perfect accompaniment to my meal.
We were both too full for pudding, so skipped the final course in order to make our way around the corner to the Donmar. After having enjoyed my first visit there earlier this year, I was very much looking forward to returning. I was also highly excited about seeing the play itself, as I know very little about Spanish Golden Age theatre, despite the fact that I work on seventeenth-century English literature. Life is a Dream (or, to give it its original title, La vida es sueno) was written by the Spanish playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca, and was first published in 1635. A little later than Sir W, therefore, but certainly well within my period of interest (even if I somehow seem to have moved away from studying any fiction in recent years!).
I must also admit, however, that not a little of my excitement arose from the fact that I was about to see Dominic West in the flesh, only a few feet away from me *swoon*. Regular readers may remember this picture of him from my rather gratuitous use of it in an earlier post, but I hope you'll excuse me if it makes another appearance here...
The play revolves around West's character, Segismundo, a prince who has been kept ignorant of his true status, locked up throughout his life in an isolated tower. This is thanks to his father's belief in a prophecy which predicts that Segismundo will grow up to be a terrible tyrant, who will ruin his country and its people. At the time the play begins, however, the King has begun to question his actions, wondering whether, in attempting to forestall the prophecy, he may, in true Oedipul style, in fact have created the monster he sought to contain. The King's feelings of guilt lead him to give Segismundo one day of freedom, in which he will be presented with the knowledge of his true identity, and allowed to act as he sees fit. If he proves a just ruler, he will be given his freedom for always, but if the prophecy comes true, and he acts as a despot, he will be thrown back into his tower and told, upon awakening, that his day as a prince was only a dream. There are sub-plots involving wronged women, lost children, and various political and romantic intrigues, but the main focus always revolves around Segismundo, and the questions of free will and fate, nature and nurture, truth and delusion, sanity and madness.
The entire cast was excellent. To mention just a few: Rupert Evans (whom I had recently enjoyed as Frank Churchill in the BBC's recent adaptation of Emma) made a funny and suitably charming cad, Kate Fleetwood was a steely and vital Rosaria, and Sharon Small was at once regal and vulnerable. Dominic West, however, excelled, with his Segismundo being fiery, dangerous and cruel one minute, comically school-boyish the next, and pathetic and heartbreakingly confused a moment afterwards.
Ultimately, it is a story of redemption, of family, and of second chances, and I found the play deeply moving, as well as comic and exhilarating in turns. Helen Edmundson's adaptation zipped along at a fantastic pace, and I enjoyed her very modern translation, which was fresh and fast and funny. I left the theatre feeling revitalized and very happy, and looking forward even more to my next Donmar venture: Red, a new play about Philip Roth starring Alfred Molina, which I'm going to see in February.
My love of the theatre is something that Sir W shared, and in a change from normal, I leave you today with a couple of lines not from his Essayes, but from a verse epistle he wrote to his close friend, the poet John Donne (another of my favourite Early Moderns). The letter is preserved in a manuscript here in Oxford, at the Bodleian, and it makes me think that I'd have enjoyed a night out on the tiles with this pair. Or, indeed, an afternoon at the theatre, as Sir W encourages his friend to do here:
'If then, for change, for howers you seem careles,
Agree with me to lose them at the playes'.