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A Dream Play at the Peacock

A Dream Play is regarded as one of the defining moments of surrealism on stage. It’s not so much a play as wide variety of clashing ideas and scenarios, which overlap and bleed into each other as if reality itself is bleeding. The net effect quite wonderfully evokes the idea that the audience is somewhere very strange indeed – where characters and archetypes seem just on the verge of making sense before morphing and merging into something new and strange yet strangely familiar. The National Youth Theatre have staged a production at the Peacock Theatre, working off the version of the play “edited” by Caryl Churchill. I put “edited” in inverted commas because – despite not having an annotated version – I can offer a pretty confident guess as to which parts of the play came from her more modern (and vastly less subtle) perspective.

A "dream" cast...

There is one moment which massively drew me out of the play – which is a shame because, directed by Jimmy Fay who brought us last year’s sensational performance The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, the film has a vibrance and energy which belies the fact that the stage isn’t populated with experienced professionals. A poet and the divinely mysterious lead character are standing on a beach when the wreckage of a ship gone to war washes up. They find the name of the ship. “Enduring Freedom”. Oh yes. I could feel myself being whacked on the head by a squeaky mallet labelled “sooo 2005”. It gets worse – the two characters go on to comment about “the blind man’s son” sunk in the disaster. Hmm? Was there a figure recently involved in a war that didn’t go smoothly who is defined by his relationship to his father and involved in something named “Enduring Freedom”?

Oh wait, I forgot, I’m not an idiot.

I have no problem with boldly political ideas delivered in any medium. What I do have a problem is shoehorning a lazy reference that a first-year drama student would find incisive which immediately dates a classic play – the first draft of the work was written in 1901. The rest of the play enjoys an ethereal “neverwhere” sort of style – evoking the timeless images of plagues and class struggle and gender roles. These are all phrased in abstract enough terms that they are unlikely to become irrelevant particularly soon, and the author does the subject matter no service by tethering the play to specific real-world events.

If I do dream about politics, I certainly dream of it in a more exciting manner than labelling it with the sort of symbolism you’d find in a poor made-for-television movie (only there the symbolism would actually be relevent to something and – maybe – actually go somewhere, while it just sticks out here like a sore thumb). It was a moment which really knocked me out of the play and made me think that this dreamer was far more boring than they had let on.

Otherwise, the play revels in the “f-word”, perhaps for shock value, perhaps just because the cast is a bunch of teenage kids. I certainly have no problem with it, but it seems oddly out of place with a dream world so carefully built on old-fashioned style and class. But maybe I’m just old-fashioned.

Anyway, the play itself is well-staged. The technical specifications of the performance are typically top notch from one of the most consistent theatres in Dublin. Everything from the set designs to bunny suits (seemingly intended to evoke Donnie Darko, but surreal enough to work on their own) are carefully crafted and beautifully positioned. Particular credit must go to the lighting and sound designers – the play isn’t so much a collection of scenes as one rapidly shifting and distorting one (like a dream), so it’s up to the technical staff to help the audience shift between the differing scenarios playing out, as characters drift in and out of focus (again, like a dream).

The young cast generally handle themselves admirably. It isn’t exactly the easiest material to wrap your head around as an audience member, so I imagine that it was just as difficult for the relatively inexperienced cast. There is some awkwardness, but it suits the style of the play – these are not characters, but figments of some shattered imagination, playing out important emotional beats like two-dimensional cyphers. It’s a dense work, and kudos must be given to the National Youth Theatre for aiming so high.

A Dream Play doesn’t always hit the spot – there feels like there’s too obvious a point to most of the moments for it to really be a dream hidden in layers of subconscious symbolism – but it’s a brave and bold effort. The surrealism won’t be for everyone, and I am not convinced of Churchill’s amendments to the text, but it’s well worth the time of anybody looking for something a little bit different or outside the norm.

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