Seb Harcombe’s production of the The Illusion embodies Tony Kushner’s fascination with the strange and mystical. Through the twists and turns of the non-linear narrative, the play asks the question: “What in this world is real and not seeming?” It is a polished production overall and with committed performances, but I found myself strangely unaffected emotionally. At Southwark Playhouse.
Tony Kushner, the writer behind the play-turned-screenplay Angels in America, offers an adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s 1636 tragicomedy, ‘L’Illusion Comique’. This new and revamped version, namely The Illusion, embodies theatricality as well as Kushner’s fascination with the strange and mystical. Playing on a theme – in this case love and all its synonyms – the language and events cascade around the topic but the action is anything but linear. Through the twists and turns of the plot, it asks the question: “What in this world is real and not seeming?”
In a bid to find his estranged son, Pridamant (James Clyde) enlists the help of the magician, Alcandre (Melanie Jessop). Stumbling upon her dark and dank cave, a tongue-less servant guides the weak-hearted (that’s a literal heart) Pridamant to the depths of their inner circle. In exchange for money, Alcandre accepts his pleas and conjures visions of his son’s past, enabling him to learn further of his offspring’s demeanour and perhaps current whereabouts. Together, we watch a montage of moments – all chaotically assembled to the point where neither the protagonist nor the audience knows what’s happening.
If you’re fond of consistency, this might not be for you. The confusing storyline meanders through the son’s (Charlie Archer) tumultuous love life(s). This would be easy enough to follow if the character names didn’t keep changing –this becomes quite frustrating, despite Alcandre’s instruction to ignore the finer detail.
The first act is much better than the second and, without giving the ending away, the final twist is disappointing and arguably undermines what happens in the rest of the two and a half hours. The final revelation essentially puts all of the weight of the play on the ending speech by Melanie Jessop, where she validates the rest of the action. The play is therefore forced to land upon this closing monologue – without which the entire thing may have been a pointless exercise.
The rich language is beautiful and Seb Harcombe’s production is captivating, but the play is weakened by unnecessary and overly wordy sections. The sporadic rhyming couplets seem out of place and more of an indulgent add-on as opposed to a gesture of artistic integrity.
By and large, the acting is excellent. Each member of the cast demonstrates a strong understanding of voice and physicality. The actors here are like finely tuned instruments – every one of them evoking a strong sense of stage presence. However, on the flip side, I was very aware that some of them were ‘acting’. A couple of performances don’t seem particularly ‘real’, in that some lines are theatrically sung instead of truthfully uttered – and in light of the play’s title, perhaps this is intentional.
Melanie Jessop has a regal bearing unlike any other, which sets her aside from the illusions her character orchestrates. Charlie Archer as the son successfully conveys both the charm and the sinister side of the womanising wanderer. Daisy Hughes as the central love interest is sweet, endearing and yet oddly strong-willed. Through a combination of impressive comic timing and strong delivery, Adam Jackson-Smith’s performance demands attention; mainly due to the hilarious speech impediment he bestows on the effeminate Matamore. At times this borders on over-the-top, but not to the point where Matamore is stripped of vulnerability.
Once again, Southwark Playhouse offers the perfect backdrop to an eerie tale of fragmented reality. The rattling railway arches enhances the already creepy atmosphere. Sarah Jane Prentice’s design and Howard Hudson’s lighting work in sync and their visions flawlessly complement each other.
Overall, this is a slick and polished piece of theatre, but something didn’t quite click into place. Despite the depth of the poetic language and the dedicated performances and the high production values, the play didn’t move me. The writing explored the nature of love to every extent imaginable – and yet, I didn’t feel at all affected by any of the proclamations or revelations.