Staged at Southwark under the direction of Seb Harcombe, The Illusion is a story of love, desire and theatricality in the 17th century. While the plot is not the most compelling - it's largely a selection of melodramatic love triangles - there is the hint of something better in this playful, entertaining tale performed by a strong cast.
The Illusion is based on Pierre Corneille’s 1636 text L’Illusion Comique and was initially adapted by Tony Kushner (of Angels in America fame) in the 1980s - this is its London premiere. It’s a classic play-within-a-play structure, in which Pridamant (James Clyde) seeks out magician Alcandre (Melanie Jessop) looking for answers on the fate of the son he banished long ago (debutant Charlie Archer).
Alcandre provides insight into Pridamant’s son with prettily-played ‘visions’, showing his amorous affairs and various stages of life. He sees his son in various incarnations: a vagabond, a servant, an unfaithful solider, in each case caught in the tangles of his love interests.
These scenes, while charming, often leave both the father and the viewer confused with frequent switches in names and settings. This confusion is exploited by the play as it toys with concepts of theatricality, deception and illusion. The Illusion does in fact force the audience to question what it is to view a play and how we perceive actors playing various roles. However, these tactics feel like an attempt to hide the failings of lacklustre love stories behind meta-theatrical framing devices. The love stories are in truth rather clichéd and uninteresting and the self-awareness of the actors is not enough to absolve the fairly humdrum writing. The play is not as intelligent or daring as it thinks, but is rather a pleasant and harmless costume drama.
Despite the problems inherent in the drama the cast - a new company drawn from RADA graduates - perform with gusto, Daniel Easton proving particularly compelling in his four separate roles. The acting pedigree of Clyde (who recently played Claudius to Michael Sheen's Hamlet) and Jessop is undeniable yet the text does not fully allow them to take over the space. The rest of the ensemble ably prop up the action and Adam Jackson-Smith’s slapstick comedy keeps the action varied.
Perhaps with more contrast between the scenes and a few less nods to the audience (the worst of which drew groans) it could be a more worthwhile production. As it stands, The Illusion is a flat affair, though somewhat rescued by convincing costumes and scenery along with the entertaining acting of a committed cast.