“What in this world is real and not seeming?”
Featuring a new ensemble of RADA graduates alongside some more experienced hands, Southwark Playhouse’s latest main house show is a UK première of The Illusion. Adapted (though most freely I am told) by Tony Kushner from the 1636 L’Illusion Comique by Pierre Cornielle, who was a contemporary (or thereabouts) of Molière and Racine, the play is constructed as a potentially deft piece of meta-theatre, passing comment on the extraordinary capacity that the theatre to create its own universe and the illusionary nature of the very same. Kushner weaves his own idiosyncratic verbosity around this tale, though the result is something of a curious mix.
Matters begin with the arrival of Pridamant at the grotto – Sarah Jane Prentice’s design and Howard Hudson’s lighting playing to the strengths of the railway arches – of noted magician Alcandre. He’s there to find out where Clindor, his estranged son is and Alcandre obliges, providing snippets of the last 15 years of his son’s life as he deals with a number of romantic entanglements and social adventures. But it is made clear that the scenes are all visions, the uncertainty of what we’re witnessing enhanced by the constant changing of the character’s names and we are joined with Pridamant in the journey of discovery to his son’s real fate.
Though director Seb Harcombe may have conceived this as a showcase for the four recent RADA graduates in the ensemble, the show undeniably belongs to the more experienced in the cast. James Clyde taps into a deep anguish as the woeful and irascible Pridamant and Melanie Jessop is incandescent as the Prospera-like Alcandre, her silky presence dominates the stage and her powerful monologue forms an useful anchor for the whole production. Charlie Archer makes an impressive debut as the wayward son and I also liked the spikiness of Shanaya Rafaat’s maid; elsewhere though, an overplayed lisp detracted too much from one performance and a tendency to shoutiness revealed a few rough edges.
Personally, I wasn’t a fan of much of Kushner’s style here which undoubtedly had an impact on these performances. There’s such a dense wordplay at work here that means that speeches frequently pull out to bum-numbing length; Corneille’s original verse has been kept but only in places which made for sticky transitions; even something as simple as the characters addressing the audience directly felt completely out of place (as the ‘show’ is ostensibly being performed for Pridamant, not us). The overall effect was an uneasy tension between the storytelling and the devices which I am not sure this particular production addresses. So despite some strong performances, this is one illusion that hasn’t quite cast a strong enough spell for me, three stars if I did that sort of thing.