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Life Is a Dream review at Sadler’s Wells, London – ‘fragments of brilliance’

Sharia Johnson and Juan Gil in Life Is a Dream at Sadler's Wells, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Milton’s line: “No light, but rather darkness visible” is as good a description of Kim Brandstrup’s new work as any.

The first full-length work created on Rambert since Glen Tetley’s The Tempest in 1979, it is based on Calderon’s 17th Century play about an imprisoned Polish Prince who is allowed out for one day and goes on a kind of rampage.

In a huge space, resembling an abandoned warehouse or a decaying palazzo, a man sits at a desk conjuring phantoms who seethe across the stage or lurk in the shadows, avoiding the shards of light that illuminate the space with fitful reluctance.

As the view through huge barred windows morphs from scudding storm clouds to restless seas and vibrating vegetation the man’s dream-self engages with his creations, manipulating them like phantom puppets. The heady, surreal atmosphere spills over the edge of the stage like a poisonous fog; a skeletal bed and a 17th Century tailor’s dummy are the only solid focal points.

There are fragments of brilliance: a bruising duet between a man and a woman in which each has equal weight and power; a lone woman in white attempts to escape her three tormentors or guardians. Bodies are raised in spiky, rising lifts or swirled around, inches from the ground. The hero or his alter ego is manhandled, assaulted and seduced by his own creatures until the barred windows reappear and he is back where he began.

There are elements of Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade and a hint of Crystal Pite’s Betroffenheit but it remains frustratingly impenetrable and the lack of variation in the first half dulls the impact of the latter stages.

Fine dancing, exemplary lighting and a live orchestra – including a haunting solo violin – cannot quite reveal the motives or the mechanics of a strange, unknowable work that remains trapped between nightmarish abstraction and slippery narrative, preventing it from realising its full dramatic potential.


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Rambert's reimagining of Calderon’s play loses its way in the dark