“This is true ensemble playing, where no one actor is the lead, but where each actor plays every part as though it were a starring role”
There are many illusions at work in the wonderful Art Of Illusion by Alexis Michalik, and you will enjoy watching this tale of magic tricks unfold. Waleed Akhtar’s lively translation of the French original, together with brilliant ensemble work by the actors under the direction of Tom Jackson Greaves, means the playing time of one hundred minutes flies by. It helps, too, that the production is staged in the more intimate Hampstead Theatre downstairs. It’s a space ideally suited for a play that has to be seen in close up by the audience, to succeed. The flexibility of the space allows a cast of characters from different times and places to constantly change right in front of your eyes — a sort of magic all by itself. And oh yes — let’s not forget the sounds of high stakes soccer matches that are a constant background to the action. On more than one occasion, it’s soccer that literally saves the day for our intrepid magicians in this play.
Soccer and magic tricks? What kind of a story is Michalik telling in The Art Of Illusion? We begin by thinking it’s an unlikely love story between a lover of mathematics who has come to believe in fate, and a petty thief who has stolen her bag. When December decides, on a whim, to return the stolen bag to April (yes, those really are their names) an extraordinary story unfolds. A Watchmaker is presiding over a tale that goes back several hundred years and connects seemingly unconnected people. What starts as a random encounter between two people turns out to be anything but. And as part of the magic of The Art of Illusion, this is also a story about how magic morphs into the tricks of early film making. We get to see how one Georges Méliès uses his knowledge of stage magic to produce film magic. And that’s just one intriguing tale told by this medley of extraordinary characters who begin as traveling conjurers and mutate into inventors of film. The biggest trick of all is watching how Michalik weaves his stories of 1776, 1828, 1871,1984 and 2000 together. Watching The Art Of Illusion is to marvel at the way in which the dramatist, as conjuror of time, mixes and matches all these different periods together while still moving the action forward. It’s ultimately all a gigantic act of illusion, starting with the magic tricks the actors perform to get the audience warmed up, to the way in which they transform from character to character. These character changes, often across gender and time periods, embody the same kind of effortless legerdemain in the acting, as the playwright manifests in his script.
There’s a lot, dramaturgically speaking, packed into The Art Of Illusion. The whole thing succeeds because every part of this production has been so carefully crafted, and fits together so well. Jackson Greaves has done sterling work in the direction and staging of this clever and engaging script, ably assisted by designer Simon Kenny. Matt Haskins and Yvonne Gilbert do great work with the lighting and sound, and there’s an “Illusion Consultant” (Ben Hart) on hand to assist with getting the magic tricks right. But the lion’s share of praise should go to the actors. Rina Fatania, Bettrys Jones, Martin Hyder, Norah Lopez Holden, Brian Martin and Kwaku Mills keep up a relentless pace, yet each character they portray is so clearly defined. This is true ensemble playing, where no one actor is the lead, but where each actor plays every part as though it were a starring role. The closest anyone comes to stealing a scene is probably Rina Fatania, whose portrayal of a mouthy fifteen year old video game player, is a great conclusion to the dazzling tapestry of characters in this play.
The Art Of Illusion is playing now at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs until January 28th. Don’t miss it.
“The script feels very polished, and so packed with jokes and one-liners it can sometimes feel like the characters are being held at arm’s length”
The play opens from the point of view of a car crashing into a stag, quite a mean feat given that we’re watching Sons of the Prophet on Hampstead Theatre’s main stage. It gives us some inkling of the deft way director Bijan Sheibani will take this 11-year-old play by Stephen Karam and bring each line to life, directing but not smothering the actors, to deliver a pitch-perfect production.
Sons of the Prophet centres around the story of gay Lebanese-America Maronite Christian Joseph Douaihy (Irfan Shamji) who is trying to support his family in the wake of his father’s death. We meet his brother Charles (Eric Sirakian) and his uncle Bill (Raad Rawi) as Joseph lies in the hospital waiting for news from the doctor.
Karam writes the family’s dynamics perfectly. The bedside bickering is funny – this is a dark comedy after all – but it’s funny in an exhausting, claustrophobic way. Each family member repeatedly tells each other to stop talking, yet none of them do, and when Joseph puts his arm across his face the audience can feel the waves of stress emanating from him (all compounded by navigating the grim-sounding US healthcare system). Concurrently, Joseph must manage his Uncle Bill’s devout Marronite faith and optimism – “I’m saying be grateful, at least you have your health” – “I don’t have my health, we’re in a doctor’s office because my knees are radiating hot pain!”
Supporting characters propel the story forward as it hurtles towards an end with no resolutions, because that’s what happens to families like Douaihy’s in rural Pennsylvania. It transpires his dad’s car accident was caused by a star of Cedar Crest High School’s football team putting a fake stag in the middle of the road to see who would swerve to avoid it – we meet Vin (Raphael Akuwudike) as he attempts to apologise to the family with a terrible essay. The supporting cast, played by Holly Atkins and Sue Wallace (Physicians Assistant, Ticket Agent etc) are sublime, and both deserve a spin-off show for their extraordinarily well-brought-to-life characters. I would like to watch each of them on stage, for longer.
At points the stage feels like a 21st century Fawlty Towers, as Joseph tries to manage a revolving door of disastrous encounters and people (his horrific boss Gloria, played by Juliet Cowan, who makes everything about her), and news reporter/brief love interest Timothy (Jack Holden) who is desperate to break into the TV bigtime by exploiting the Douaihy family tragedy.
The script feels very polished, and so packed with jokes and one-liners it can sometimes feel like the characters are being held at arm’s length. The actors, with the exception of a few wavering American accents, fly with the lines. Any bumps lie entirely with the script, which feels extremely American, and an interesting choice for Hampstead Theatre in London 2022 (prompting the usual questions, why here, why now?) Perhaps it’s because it’s an omen of what life could become in Britain in the next 10 years under the wrong government hell-bent on privatising the NHS: a stark warning of the extra layers of stress and financial worry that will burden almost every family.
The set design (Samal Blak) is stark and unfussy, with a beautiful use of levels, which helps to tie in all the disparate family elements. Aline David’s movement direction introduces a sense of calmness at times during the show when it’s most necessary.
The play deals with the true sense of what it means to be human, as it revolves around the teachings of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet (On Pain, On Passion, On Work, etc). Explicit instructions in the playtext recommend that each character at heart is human – “Gloria may say ridiculous things, but her mannerisms aren’t ridiculous.” Karam calls for the play to be staged in ‘explicitly human spaces’.
The calmness of the final scene, as Joseph meets his kindergarten teacher while he does physiotherapy, is most poignant, and provides respite from his life’s chaos. He confides in her that the last time he was happy was when he was aged four, and although the line is delivered as a joke, there’s a pause from the audience before we laugh, as we all reflect en-masse that life is hard, and at times it can feel like a rolling wheel of disasters.
The play is tight, well-written, superbly acted, and an easy 105 minutes (no interval!) watch. It lifts rather than shatters, and does it with serious humour and a whack of seriously good acting.