In 1977 the late lamented Ken Campbell brought burgeoning fringe theatre crashing into the mainstream when his production of Illuminatus! transferred from the Roundhouse to the National Theatre. It was an insanely, legendarily ambitious project – five plays lasting eleven and half hours, based on Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s epic counter-culture conspiracy novel, The Illuminatus Trilogy. Forty years later, the Eye of Horus gazes out once more, heralding the return of the Illuminati. Somewhat under the radar, Campbell’s daughter Daisy has created a play based on Cosmic Trigger, Wilson’s equally wild autobiography. Her company delivers an unhinged, acid-fuelled, hallucination of a show which conjures up the spirits of the counter culture and sends them lurching and flailing into post-truth 21st century culture.
In the delightful, lesser known Cockpit Theatre off Lisson Grove, the voice of Northampton magus Alan Moore rumbles an incantation. An Egyptian goddess undresses, remove her sensory attributes one by one as she enter a new realm. Cards are on the table – soon literally, as the tarot comes out – and we are off on an unrestrained trip through the acid high and terrible lows of Bob Anton Wilson’s life. The show runs for four hours, with two intervals, but the audience shows no inclination to leave.
The spectacle on parade is absurdly entertaining. An accordion-playing Aleister Crowley leads a troop of initiates. A prison visiting rooms burst into a musical number, lead by Timothy Leary. William Burroughs growls gnomically from beneath his hat. Bob takes his first trip, as the discoverer of LSD, Albert Hoffmann cycles through his front room. Ken Campbell himself makes several appearances, directing the Illuminatus Trilogy within Daisy’s new play. There is tantric sex, a remote controlled flying submarine, JFK assassination conspiracy, and religious initiation. There is also sadness, tragedy and near despair. Over it all Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos, presides, descending to toss her apple of discord and start the whole wild ride.
Wilson’s sprawling novel could easily devour any attempt to put it on stage, but Campbell and her team were born to make this work (almost literally, with Daisy apparently conceived backstage at the original Illuminatus!). Oliver Senton, on stage almost throughout as Wilson, effortlessly anchors the show while an inventive and highly watchable cast of family and freaks swirls around him. There are also additional appearance from almost everyone, including Daisy, the stage manager and the producer, performing ‘banana magic’. However, for all the necessary chaos the show is tightly directed and structured, and also packs an emotional punch. It is moving when required, and inspiring, uplifting, mind-blowing and captivating in equal measure. As Leary said, “The truth is what you can get away with”. Cosmic Trigger is not only the most enjoyable show in London but, despite its 1970s source material, the most current. Campbell and her crew deserve congratulations on a show like nothing since… well, Illuminatus!