A late 17th century classic by the prolific Spanish dramatist Pedro Calderon de la Barca, cleverly adapted and English-ed by Helen Edmundson, who also adapted War and Peace and Mill on the Floss for Shared Experience and Coram Boy for the National.
Shakespeare it ain't. It's schematic, lacks psychological verisimilitude and labours under a plot with more sudden reversals than a learner driver's three-point turn. It's hard for a modern audience to comprehend some of the things that motivate the characters, notably a highly-developed sense of honour (which at the end results in the heroine marrying a man she clearly loathes simply because he dumped her for someone else and thus impugned her honour), a strong sense of the innate superiority of those of noble birth, a belief in fate and prophecy, and a religious notion that life is only a dream from which we awake to the reality of heaven or hell. They're all ideas present in Shakespeare, but part of the fun in his plays is the way he explores, questions and even subverts these ideas. Calderon just seems to accept them wholesale. From my limited exposure to French tragedy of this period I'd say there's also something (French polish? Intellectual and formal coherence?) that they have but C lacks.
Shakespeare comes to mind because there were lots of Shakespearian echoes (which may partly have been down to the translation: Ms E very good at writing convincing cod-Shakespeare), especially echoes of the Tempest. As in several of the references to dreams, and in the central character's reaction when he first sees a woman (cf Miranda, "O brave new world..."). And in the sage or mage-like father and king (a kind of misguided Prospero) who imprisons his son Sigismundo in a tower because his horoscope says he's going to turn out a wrong 'un.
The core of the piece is the way Sigismundo reacts when he's first let out and put on the throne: like a savage, uncivilised, untaught, a beast. He's reimprisoned and then freed a second time, when he proves to have learnt from his earlier experience and behaves with the requisite nobility, sense of justice etc etc. That did have some (though not much) psychological truth, though it's a pretty bleak view of man compared with the later Enlightenment notion of the noble savage. (Calderon was a priest, which may explain some of this.)
What made the show were the performances, especially Dominic West as Sigismondo, slouching in ill-fitting court dress on the throne, part idiot child, part monster. He's in The Wire on TV, apparently, though we saw him in Rock'n'Roll at the Royal Court. David Horovitch was excellent as Clotaldo, Sigismundo's jailer, father of the spurned Rosaura and principal exponent of the theory of honour: we saw him in The Misanthrope at the National. He's especially good at taking the lines and unpicking them to deliver them thoughtfully, intelligently, illuminatingly: almost in the Simon Russell Beale class. And Kate Fleetwood was fiery and sympathetic as the unfortunate Rosaura.
Direction by Jonathan Munby (he did the RSC Canterbury Tales): much of the intelligent excavation of the text must be down to him. Design minimal: the odd throne, breast plate, period costume and prisoner's shackles attached to the Donmar's back wall.
An interesting period piece, as well done as it could be. We shall not be revisiting the work of Calderon.
Natasha went the following night (I'd managed to buy two lots of tickets, a pair of which she took). She thought the play absurd and David Horovitch sounded like Rupert Bear.