Saturday 8th September, matinée
Rather like the central character in the Southwark Playhouse production of ‘The Illusion’, a world-weary father who wants to know about his estranged son, we soon found ourselves becoming rather world weary ourselves, with some questions of our own. Chief amongst them being ‘Why did we do it?’ We kept thinking of Richard E Grant’s plaintive cry in the film ‘Withnail and I’ – “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake”. We had obviously missed something in this play which purports to be a ‘tender comic tale of passion, regret, love and magic’.
If this clip of Tony Kushner discussing his play, which is an adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s play ‘L’Illusion Comique’ is to believed, it is a love letter to the theatre and an exploration of theatre’s ability to fool the audience. The problem with this approach is that it starts to seem like a dissection, and in the process the theatrical experience itself has to die. It is a long time since we’ve seen a production so lacking in drama or theatricality, and as for being intrigued and mystified, the twist ending was so late and so hollow that sadly it did not make up for nearly three hours of boredom.
Perhaps the problem is that whilst the original is nearly four hundred years old, even the adaptation was written over twenty years ago, and there have been too many developments in theatre, film, psychology and magic for us to find this interesting from an intellectual point of view, or emotionally engaging. The premise of the play, a father visiting a magician in a cave and being shown visions which purport to be representations of episodes in his son’s life, should be rich material, but somehow our expectations were too high.
Could a different production have got more out of the play? We were surprised that the staging was so unimaginative, with no apparent attempt to play with the visual or theatrical possibilities of scenes played out by ‘actors’ who are apparently not flesh and blood. There is too much talking and indicating, but nothing which really suggests that magic is happening. The lack of real emotion creates a rather irritating effect where the characters all seem like self-indulgent drama-queens with nothing to tell us.
This not for lack of quality in the casting. James Clyde, last seen by us playing the greatest ‘bad father’ of them all, Claudius in Michael Sheen’s Hamlet, is amusingly grumpy when he is given the chance, but with such as throwaway ending, he never gets to show his emotional range. Amongst the younger cast members (all fresh out of drama school) Shanaya Rafaat really stands out, running the gamut of emotion from light comedy to murderous rage. But perhaps that is the problem. With the publicity proclaiming that ‘The Illusion is performed by a new ensemble of RADA graduate actors’, it does start to feel as though the source material has been chosen more as an end of year showpiece rather than a drama worthy of a revival.
We blame ourselves really. What were we thinking? Was it an over-hasty desire to re-visit a theatre were we had seen some real classics, notably Mack and Mabel and Floyd Collins? Did we just assume that we would like everything this venue turned out? How did we manage not to notice that the play was an adaptation of a 17th century play by a French tragedian – not exactly our favourite genre. And did we not check out Tony Kushner and realise that we might not be great fans of his wordy and exaggerated theatrical style, given it’s similarity to David Hirson’s ‘La Bete’, which gave us one of our least favourite evenings in the theatre ever. Perhaps we thought an inspirational production would convert us. But surely we should have realised that branding a cast according to the drama school they went to was rather strange way of trying to recommend a production. Well, everyone can be fooled some of the time.