City of Mirrors

Real Illusions presents 'City of Mirrors'.

Real Illusions presents 'City of Mirrors'.

Real Illusions presents 'City of Mirrors' at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin.

Real Illusions presents 'City of Mirrors' at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin.

City of Mirrors by Real Illusions deserves our admiration in the first instance because it attempts quite a difficult theatrical feat, namely, the staging of a production without words that is neither mime nor modern dance. The company describe it as a visual performance, which of course it is, but it’s the fabulous, predominantly jazz based musical soundtrack which as much as anything provides the emotional and dramatic webbing to this homage to film noir and in particular, American gangster movies of the 1940s and 1950s.

One of the difficulties of a performance without words that is also not, as such, an abstract contemporary dance piece nor a multi-media extravaganza is that there is an over-reliance on stock visual references in order that the audience immediately gets the role of each character. Thus, the characters in City of Mirrors are almost too predictably iconic, too instantly recognisable as types, too dependent on their visual import. Even if you love the style in dress, attitude and chiaroscuro it might have been better if Real Illusions had played a little with the expected iconography and messed around somewhat with the conventional tropes of this genre of storytelling.

Thus, the storyline of City of Mirrors isn’t the most original ever. Nevertheless, it is conveyed with convincing visual import and power. An innocent girl (Marilyn Bane) arrives in the big city with virtually nothing except an impressive long red coat and an iconic brown leather suitcase. A music box, which she pulls out of her suitcase early on, represents both her journey from another, more secure life and all that she has in the world.

Utilising the magnificent old inner walls of Smock Alley to create the shadowy, shady goings-on and foreboding of a night time inner-city full of alleyways and darkness, where figures can appear and disappear, we quickly understand that soon this young innocent girl will fall into a life of coerced prostitution at the hands of a madam (Ita Fitzmahony) and her pimp, played with convincing menace by Donal O’Leary, aided by his femme fatale (Bernie O’Reilly). Ailbe Collins is a striking presence as the ‘good guy’ but his girl is also a ‘girl of the night’ (Maud Hendricks), and he appears to be involved in nefarious financial activity.

Taking full advantage of the site, the drama is played out on different levels of fire escape-like structures that scale three sides of the high-ceilinged space. The audience can even choose to sit at ground level or stand on a first floor scaffolded tier - a choice you have to make, however, before the production starts and not during it.

Most important of all in City of Mirrors, though, is the highly stylised, acutely choreographed movement throughout that reminds us that this is homage. When allied with the proactive, leading and dramatic lighting (virtually another character in the drama) and the superb musical landscape which generates so much atmosphere, the visceral beauty of City of Mirrors sidelines any misgivings about storyline and proves to be a promising debut by this fledgling company.

Patrick Brennan was chief theatre critic and arts writer with the Irish Examiner from 1990-2004. He is currently writing a book on the theatre of Tom Murphy.

  • Review
  • Theatre

City of Mirrors by Real Illusions Theatre Company

15-19 December 2009

Produced by Real Illusions Theatre Company
In Smock Alley Theatre

Devised by the group

Directed by Antoinette Duffy

Lighting Design: Barry Madden

Sound Design: Aaron Fogarty

Choreography: Mariam Ribon

Costume Design: Marilyn Bane

Stage Combat: Whiplash Productions

With: Marilyn Bane, Ailbe Collins, Ita Fitzmahony, Maud Hendricks, Donal O’ Leary and Bernie O’ Reilly