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Just last year, idiosyncratic US playwright Tony Kushner adapted Pierre Corneille's 1636 tragicomedy, 'L'Illusion Comique', to serve as the final show in a season of his work at New York's Signature Theatre. The lavish production scored decent reviews – so fair play to Brit director Seb Harcombe for sorting this UK premiere so quickly. But I suspect high production values and a partisan, pro-Kushner audience are key to the appeal of this strange play, which did very little for me in this fringe incarnation.
Like many of his near-contemporary Shakespeare works, Corneille's play uses a framing device to tell its story. But 'The Illusion' is notable for pushing said device to metatextual levels. Here nobleman Pridamant (James Clyde) seeks out magician Alcandre (Melanie Jessop) and begs her to tell him the location of his estranged son.
She does more than that, conjuring up four visions of the lad (Charlie Archer), who appears to be getting involved in progressively more caddish trysts with a woman (Daisy Hughes), her maid (Shanaya Rafaat) and a simpering nobleman (Adam Jackson-Smith). But why do their names change with every vision? And is Pridamant junior really this much of a tool?
There is a worthwhile pay-off to all this, when illusion and reality finally reconcile. But for the most part the conceptual bells and whistles simply serve to make a fairly bland romantic romp that bit more ungainly. Kushner has some fun with rhyming verse, but you wouldn't say he'd really left his stamp on proceedings. Harcombe's production is solidly acted, but to master this oddity a director needs more than mere efficiency.