Rambert: Life is a Dream – Festival Theatre

Rambert’s latest production takes the audience into a strange dream world where reality merges with imagination and dancers become insidious apparitions. It is clear from the outset that this is not a realm of daydreams, and indeed the performance unfolds into a nightmarish pantomime where intimidation and tension hold sway. Incorporating elements of a 17th century play in which a newly released prince goes on a violent rampage, the performance dwells on ideas of entrapment, persecution, and exploring the insecurities of the unconscious mind.

‘Life is a Dream’ is above all a ‘dark’ production, both figuratively and literally. Throughout, the stage is barely lit, with sickly green stage lights and single orange bulbs alternating as the scarce sources of light. At first this gave the set an eerie, underwater quality, but by the end of the first half I found my eyes beginning to strain and the novelty of the faded colour scheme starting to wear thin. I hoped the second act would bring an inversion of this washed-out palette but the weak lighting persisted – to the detriment of the dancing, in my opinion. The intention, I presume, was to draw the audience into the dream world and maintain its ethereal spell. I found this to be ill-advised, however, as it felt as though we were watching the show on a phone screen with the brightness turned to minimum: not a situation conducive to full immersion.

The director’s insistence on this lighting design was complemented (unfortunately) by an over-reliance on repetitive and piercing music to drive home the ‘eeriness’ of the dream realm. Again, the minor key and discordant clashes of instruments were at first intriguing and unsettling but, as it dawned on the audience that there would be no contrast to this threatening composition, the music lost any capacity to produce suspense and evoke the tension of the narrative. This was particularly disappointing as the programme featured a well-rounded orchestra of brass, wind, and strings, yet in practice failed to use them to their best effect – an anti-climax that a cynical viewer might apply to the broader performance.

That said, the show is by no means without merit, and the outstanding choreography and unfaultable dancing do much to make up for the detracting light and soundscapes. Olivier Award-winning choreographer Kim Brandstrup puts the stark and limited lighting to maximum effect, incorporating the play of light to such an extent that shadows are as much part of the choreography as the physical dancers. The inclusion of cinematography, too, was exceptionally well done and made the set beautiful and haunting, rather than merely reminiscent of an archetypal horror film. The story of a director falling asleep and dreaming about rehearsals was a lovely concept and allowed for beautiful duets exploring consciousness. For a ‘narrative piece’, as Rambert bills this show, however, this plot is subsumed quickly and the mix of the director’s story with the prince’s becomes somewhat confusing, particularly as the plot appears often to be cyclical.

This performance is worth watching for the sheer brilliance of the dancing, and for the creative cinematic elements. Be warned, though, that this is part dance show and part psychological ordeal – in fact, more than superficial connections can be drawn between this show and recently released horror/dance film Suspiria. With greater variety in the music and lighting particularly, Rambert’s ‘Life is a Dream’ could be exquisite; barring that, be prepared to wear glasses and pinch yourself periodically to check you haven’t succumbed to the land of dreams yourself.


PHOTOS: Capital Theatres

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Jess Cowie

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