Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Theatre review: The Illusion

Pierre Corneille's 1636 play The Illusion, presented at Southwark Playhouse in an adaptation by Tony Kushner, is certainly unusual. A lawyer, Pridamant (James Clyde,) who long ago drove his son away and lost touch, is keen to find out what happened to him. He visits the magician Alcandre (Melanie Jessop) who promises to show him a series of illusions that'll replay various important scenes from the son's life: Penniless, Calisto (Charlie Archer) will fall for an upper-class heiress (Daisy Hughes) whose father disapproves, fight off a couple of rivals for her hand (Daniel Easton, Adam Jackson-Smith,) be caught up in the machinations of a lady's maid (Shanaya Rafaat) and have numerous affairs, leading him into dangerous adventures. But how reliable are the illusions? The characters' names have a tendency to change from one scene to the next, and if Pridamant doesn't like what he sees, the magician can make the story change direction. Is she just showing him what he wants to see?

Sebastian Harcombe's production comes to Southwark Playhouse via RADA, and over half the cast are recent graduates. There's a lot of interesting touches in the performances that keep you on your toes; Rafaat as the occasionally soliloquising maid is particularly good, and Jackson-Smith as a foppish love rival is funny, even if his performance is, as Ian commented in the interval, very reminiscent of Michael Palin in Life of Brian. Jessop's illusionist has a nice line in the smilingly sinister which she amusingly flips on its head at times.

I'm not familiar with Corneille's original L'Illusion Comique so have no idea how faithful Kushner's version is, but I suspect in certain areas at least he's taken some liberties, because there's something very modern, or rather postmodern, about the play's self-referential look at performance and storytelling. Although at its heart is a meditation on the powerful but illusory nature of love, The Illusion is also very much concerned with the business of theatricality, its structure essentially a variation on the play-within-a-play. The illusions reenacting the son's life exist in some separate reality, but Alcandre's servant (Easton) is occasionally called upon to cross over into it and take on supporting roles, with Pridamant even complimenting him on his acting when he returns. The young man's leading lady, like many of the characters we see, is an archetype of romantic fiction (and a rather annoying one,) this generic nature emphasized by the fact that their names change with some regularity. One of the funniest scenes sees a pair of love rivals try to outdo each other with claims of how many limbs they'd cut off if their lady demanded it, then deconstructing the impracticality of the boast. Alcandre even gives her client an interval to recover from a cliffhanger. The effect is to make us question how much of what we see on this stage we can trust, and seems very much ahead of its time.

I'm not sure what I expected The Illusion to be but it wasn't this, not a perfect play by any means but well worth seeing, interesting and packing a couple of rather good surprises.

The Illusion by Pierre Corneille in an adaptation by Tony Kushner is booking until the 8th of September at Southwark Playhouse.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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