A husband and wife, giddy but strained after a night of dancing, momentarily allow their marital masks to slip and confess their sexual fantasies. The incidents they describe are relatively insignificant lapses –moments of overwhelming but unfulfilled lust. The husband, Fridolin, was once captivated by a beautiful woman on a stranded beach, and wife, Albertine, was similarly carried away by an enigmatic chap with a bright yellow case. They are slight confessions but they are enough to sew the seed of doubt, which blooms – ugly but resplendent – over the course of Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story.
Stanley Kubrick was inspired by this infidelity fantasia, originally a novella, to make his film Eyes Wide Shut. This story, though - obsessed with the fine divide between unconscious desires and conscious action, dreams and reality – seems made for theatre. This is a medium, after all, which is all about creating and disrupting illusion; a medium that shimmers, more persistently and persuasively than any other, between the real and unreal.
The opening scene, in which Fridolin (Luke Neal) and Albertine (a magnificently mercurial Leah Muller) confess their secret yearnings, is emotionally and theatrically restrained. Adapter and director Anna Ledwich allows the couple’s unhappiness to burgeon in isolation and keeps her box of theatrical tricks firmly shut. The heavy atmosphere is broken only by a sudden shrill ringing. It is a telephone call, summoning Fridolin to a dying patient, and marks the start of this couple’s descent into a half dreamlike state, where fantasy and nightmare merge.
At first, the slide away from reality is caused only by strange emotional slips. So, when Fridolin visits Marianne (Rebecca Scroggs), the predictable doctor-patient scenario is disrupted by an unexpected, gasping confession of love. It takes this slight indiscretion – this sideways step away from reality and this externalisation of internal desires – to send Fridolin’s life into a stupendous spin.
Fridolin stumbles outside and across a prostitute, played again by Rebecca Scroggs. Doubling is used incessantly and intelligently throughout Dream Story, hinting at repressed desires and warping guilt. Fridolin eventually refuses the prostitute’s advances but, when he apparently reaches home, he is pursued by visions. Scroggs’ sunken prostitute glides onto stage, opens her mouth and water cascades out. Fridolin frantically clears up the mess and it is the real residue left behind by these surreal fantasies that traps this show in a strange half-world, which assaults the senses at every turn.
Time, place and character jostle oddly together. It’s a lot like watching a scratched record, play out its uneven and jolting course. Scenarios repeat themselves and already bizarre moments branch out further still, doubling and taking us further and further away from any truth or reality. The only disappointment is the slightly strained conclusion, in which the man and wife wake up and marvel, ‘A dream is never really just a dream, is it?’ It seems a pity to vocalise what Ledwich’s show has already explored to such successfully spooky effect.