Review – The Illusion – Southwark Playhouse

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An empty Tuesday night in the quiet month of August: what to do? I scanned a friend’s Google calendar for recently viewed plays and saw he’d just been to the Southwark Playhouse for The Illusion. Ooh, an eminently affordable location – but a running time of 150 minutes. And it was about a lawyer who’d cast out his son? Hmm, hard to make a decision with the fleeting time allowed me at work to do the hard research on picking the right (and only) show I would see for two weeks. “Was it good?” I asked him via Twitter. “Yes” was my reply. So, then, I booked (hurray for having bought a Southwark Playhouse 5 ticket package and forgotten about it, so no cost), and by good fortune I discovered another Twitter friend was going the same night so I’d have someone to socialize with … ah, the world of social networking, it’s a wild one!

The play is set in a magician’s cave in what appears to be some time in the 17th century. The cafe is pretty much just – well, the Southwark Playhouse – with some cloth-covered furniture on the side of the stage to add some dimensionality. A black-suited man (Pridamant, James Clyde) enters and haughtily demands the cowering servant to fetch his mistress – the woman (Melanie Jessop) who is a magician (a woman in power, hurray!). He wants to know what happened to his son, whom he cast out years ago for reasons I never quite understood. He and the woman engage in some power play, but she finally agrees to show him his son. She then enchants him – and a group of cream clad, masked characters creeps out from the wings (or, if you prefer, from deep within the cave). The first (very handsome!) young man removes his mask, and … it’s Clindor, Pridamant’s son!

Before I say much more of anything about the play, I want to say that at this point I was sucked into the world of the show and lost my critical distance. Were we seeing Pridamant’s actual son? Were we seeing the minions of Alcandre performing the life of Clindor? Was this a ghostly vision, in which, through the mirror of the past, the true experiences of Clindor were being displayed? How was it that the servant was able to perform in the masques? Were the various performers supposed to be real people or perhaps the representations of various types, i.e. the ingenue, the scheming servant, the ridiculous fop (Adam Jackson-Smith, hysterical and, I suspect, well worth seeing again)? These puzzles, and the evolution of the father as he sees the changes in his son’s life through the various scenes (one wonders, for example, just why he wants to know what has happened to his son), kept my mind occupied enough that, even though at the end there was a grand reveal and a real theatrical joke played upon us (and Pridamant), I found myself unwilling to accept the script as written and instead kept puzzling through the various intriguing mysteries to find the real, underlying truth of the play.

To make it even a bit more delicious, the script, by a pre-Angels Tony Kushner, is full of poetry and lush phrases that manage to make the era in which the play is set come more brightly to life. I say this because rhyming plays were how things were done back when Corneille wrote this show, but obviously aren’t now; yet there are some rhyming sections and they are done in a way that is fresh and pleasant to the ear. Aaah.

Right. So, in short, I found this play charming, the performances good (I saw the younger actors as being “types” rather than actual characters, so keep this in mind if you’re finding my judgment not in synch with yours), and the evening much more brisk than you might have expected of a play supposedly so long. Given how much incredibly stale stuff is on the stages of London right now, this was as much of an unexpected treat as a crocus in February snow. Thanks to Tim for the hot tip!

(This review is for a performance that took place Tuesday, August 28th, 2012. The play continues through September 8th.)

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