People tempted to ask what the National Theatre is doing reviving an obscure comedy by a dead foreigner would have their chauvenist prejudices confirmed by the opening scenes of Richard Eyre's production of Eduardo de Filippo's La grande magia. The National's duty to conserve our cultural identity has been underlined by the addition of the word Royal to its title. Surely it should not be wasting a cast of 20 and talents of the calibre of Eyre, Alan Howard and Bernard Cribbins on this posey piece of nonsense set in some grand hotel that is clearly abroad?
At the wave of a conductor's baton the curtain rises on a scene of un-English elegance that echoes one of the dream sequences from Frederico Fellini's film 8½. Ladies in large white hats are exchanging gossip. Enter Howard, also in white, accompanied by a column of spun sugar topped by an even bigger hat, the amazingly tall Fiona Gillies as his wife. Howard, at his most irritatingly mannered, is rude to the guests and patronising to Gillies, reinforcing his superiority by declaring that he is a happy man because he has "no illusions".
This is not quite true, for he is possessively jealous about his wife, as the guests know, but this social chitchat is interrupted by the news that a magician is to give an entertainment. Two of the guests describe previous performances by Professor Otto Marvuglia in terms of awe. Enter Cribbins, whose grey beard, wild eyes and seedy clothes suggest La Strada rather than 8½. In anticipation of his evening performance, he gives a foretaste of his mesmeric powers, though Howard is not impressed, nor, frankly, are we. The elegance of Anthony Ward's design, the stilted acting, the spectacle, do not seem to be leading anywhere. After the moral seriousness of the David Hare trilogy, what is Eyre doing directing this confection? Which is what Eyre wants you to think.
In fact, de Filippo (1900-1984) is not as obscure as might be thought, either as a popular and prolific Neapolitan dramatist, or in the annals of the National Theatre. His Saturday, Sunday, Monday was a hit for Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright in 1973. In 1991, Eyre directed his Napoli Milionaria, first staged in 1945 and exploring the corruptions of Naples at the end of the war. La grande magia was written in 1948. This story of a charlatan illusionist offers Eyre a wonderful opportunity to explore the illusionism of theatre itself.
As the hotel guests go in for dinner, the first illusion is unmasked. Cribbins lapses into a Lancastrian accent, and the two guests who have been talking up his powers turn out to be plants. Cribbins, George Raistrick and Christopher Ryan, together with Alison Fiske as the professor's wife and stage assistant, are here to work a scam. Desperate for money, they have agreed to make it possible for the lovely Gillies to escape her jealous husband for an assignation with another hotel guest. The plan works. The professor persuades Howard to allow his wife to enter a magic cabinet, and she disappears. With one of those theatrical coups that make every penny of the National's subsidy worthwhile, a motor boat rises from the orchestra pit and Gillies and her lover roar away to sea.
Admittedly, this was not quite what the professor thought would happen, but when Howard plaintively asks for his wife back, Cribbins persuades him that she is contained in a small silver box, which he hands to Howard. If Howard is a husband who has faith in his wife, when he opens it she will reappear. If he does not trust her, she will not.
It is here that Eyre as director and de Filippo as author seem to part company. When La grande magia was first performed the critics reportedly shouted out "Pirandello!". But while acknowledging the influence of his older contemporary, de Filippo insisted that he was simply telling a story of a jealous husband who lacks faith in his wife. Eyre, quite rightly, plays up the Pirandellesque games with reality and illusion upon which this story turns. Although written post-war, de Filippo's play is still cast in the pre-war, "metaphysical" mode of Italian literature, where an oblique approach had to be taken in order to survive under fascism. Only one line in Carlo Ardito's translation, and that an adjustment made in rehearsal for this production - "We live in an age when whole cities can be made to disappear" - makes any reference to more recent events.
It is Eyre who chooses to have the sickly daughter of one of the professor's henchmen (Anne-Marie Duff) talking to an imaginary lover, rather than a real offstage one, at the beginning of Act II, which is set in the professor's decaying, but impressively sized, apartment. And it is Eyre who makes the one error of judgment in the production, when Howard, still clutching the professor's box, turns up at the apartment with a police inspector to accuse the professor of murder. The tone suddenly switches to Dario Fo as David Ross's prancing and posturing policeman, a comic Duce in black uniform, interrogates the professor. Ross's performance is a tour de force, delightful to watch and probably enchanting to direct, but it strikes a false note in a play whose falsehoods have to be patently true.
Far more subtle is Cribbins's manipulation of the real and the imaginary as he persuades Howard to continue his "experiment", arguing that we are all projections of each other's imaginations, so that the waiter who has turned up from the hotel is really still at the hotel, and that the man threatening the professor with a gun because he wants his money back can be made to disappear with the aid of a (real) cheque. "Am I or am I not an illusionist?" demands Cribbins commandingly, and by the end of the act Howard is so deeply in his power that, in another of Mark Henderson's magical lighting effects, Cribbins persuades him that he can walk through walls - the wall in question being, as Eyre cannily arranges it, theatre's "fourth wall", the line of the footlights.
At the start of the last act Pirandello rules. It is four years later and Howard is now like Pirandello's Henry IV, living in a fantasy world with a compliant servant, the box unopened and the professor exploiting his wealth. In a magnificent and tragic speech Howard seems about to open the box, having discovered his faith, when his wife reappears, seeking reconciliation. Author and director come together again in the final moments, when Howard declares: "I am the only illusionist now!" He has understood that it is his jealousy that has locked his wife in a box. Rather than release himself, and her, he will keep his illusions, an unhappy man.
While the issue of faith may have more resonance in a culturally Catholic country such as Italy, the metaphor of theatrical illusion makes perfect sense in a hypocritically Protestant one. By presenting plays such as these the National reminds us of our European identity. In a final flourish, the walls of Ward's set fly up to reveal the bare bricks behind. Eyre seems to be saying: "Am I not the greatest illusionist of them all?" Nobody can disagree with him.
Sunday Times, 23.7.95