A bit of Restoration comedy never goes amiss. Head scratching plot twists, romance and, if you’re lucky (and we were with The Illusion), a bit of sword fighting… all with the added bonus of it being uproariously funny. The Illusion was certainly no exception to this, and with the enchanting and bewitching nature of the magical fantasy which frames the play, it adds even more to an already action packed romp.
The play was fantastic and clearly had enough scope to allow the team to run with it creatively. The set for one thing looked really good. It wasn’t too fussy, but things like the beautifully painted floor were crucial to the overall atmosphere. The main construction worked well to break up the space and allow plenty of movement through doorways from exterior to interior, and from one place to another.
The cast in this performance really were fantastic, and as a cast of equals it really is important to mention all of them. The play begins as Ollie Dickens’ Pridamant comes to find the wizard Alcandre for some small news of his son. Katie Macintyre is wonderful as the wizard who directs the illusions; she plays power well and relishes the influence she has on other people’s lives. She also gives us some of the more positive messages of the play and works well as the chorus like figure, although on other occasions her clear disregard for her servant turns her into something altogether less sympathetic, and her performance perfectly captures this diversity of character. Kate Burke’s turn as said servant sees her switching between a sinister atmospheric presence to an outpouring of emotional anguish. It is a chilling performance as we watch her step into the action as a snarling effigy of dispassion, before being reduced once again to a speechless presence.
The rest of the cast make up the characters in the three illusions we witness. Each one involves the same five actors, but each time with different names and in ever so slightly different situations, which causes Pridament to watch in growing confusion. Riana Duce, as Melibea/Isabelle/Hippolyta is the noble lady and the object of all three men’s affections. Despite her firm, and often incredibly harsh rebuttals of certain suitors, she seems to be one moral compass in a sea of Machiavellis. The loss of her innocence as she moves from lover to humiliated wife is moving and tragic to watch. The man she falls for, the reason that the illusions are conjured, is Pridament’s son Calisto/ Clindor/ Theogenes. He is played by Nick Armfield who has the audience wrapped around his finger half enchanted half repulsed by his charm. It is a wonderfully confident performance full of wit and humour, and despite some questionable antics, it is a joy to watch.
At this point however we must remember Shakespeare’s warnings; ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’. Thrown into the mix to shake things up in The Illusion are male rivals Pleribo/Adraste/Prince and Matamore, along with a spurned and scheming maid, Elicia/Lyse/Clarina. Ollie Brassell is the rival who just keeps appearing (Pleribo/Adraste/Prince) and brings energy to the stage, as he snaps from pouting and pathetic to sinister and ruthless in the blink of an eye. The verbal and physical sparring matches with Armfield’s Clindor prove to be some of the highlights of the play. The second rival sees Andy Lake in a role for which the phrase larger than life does not seem adequate enough.
Deliciously deluded, he seems to embody the tragi-comic ideal as the humour which follows in his wake during the first half becomes something far more melancholic as he deflates after seeing the extent to which humanity is doomed. Physically shedding the flamboyant clothes of his former self, it is shocking to see as the man we laughed at and not with, is suddenly crushed. Andy Lake’s performance perfectly carries the weight of these contradicting emotional states. Hannah Shembri’s maid is hilariously funny and maliciously scheming. She is probably the character who has the most monologues, and therefore the exceptional range of her performance is exposed as the audience see her internal dilemmas as well as her quick wit which appears in conversation with the other characters.
The play provides Pridament with one hell of an emotional journey as he watches his son descend into more extreme danger. Ollie Dickens’ performance as this unsympathetic father is terrific and he spends an awful lot of time on stage, during which time we see the character develop. There is a moment of remorse, but it lasts for under a minute before he once again bemoans the disappointment of a son who creates illusions on stage, one of the play’s many meta nods to the illusion that it itself is creating.
Director Tom Giles and Alex Ferguson created something to write home about; a play with perfect comic timing and plenty of heart. In the words of Shakespeare in Love, it has all that good crowd pleasers should; love, comedy, and all it’s missing is a bit with a dog.