“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.
HANDEL’S MESSIAH: THE LIVE EXPERIENCE at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane
“The soloists are captivating”
When Handel composed the music for “Messiah” in 1741 it initially had a mixed and modest reception and caused a rift between Handel and the librettist Charles Jennens. Handel completed the score in just over three weeks, the speed of which many perceived as a sign of ecstatic and divine energy but Jennens merely put it down to carelessness and laxity. Despite the faltering start, the oratorio gained in popularity eventually becoming one of the best known and frequently performed choral works. The ‘Hallelujah’ chorus being instantly recognisable and often performed as a standalone piece.
“Messiah” tells the whole life story of Christ from birth to death, and beyond. The go-to work to perform during the Easter or Christmas period, conductor Gregory Batsleer’s interpretation draws it away from the classical concert hall with the intention of pulling in a wider audience from the West End and beyond. The scale and ambition are on a grand scale; combining the London Symphony Chorus and the English Chamber Orchestra with four of the top soloists of the classical world. It is billed as an ‘immersive’ experience although the hype merely adds fuel to the debate as to what ‘immersive’ actually means in the theatrical context.
There is no getting away from the fact that the production is visually and aurally stunning. The libretto leaves more to be desired. A series of reflections and soundbites from the Old and New Testaments with none of the singers having any identifiable role. So, the success has to rely in part on the drama of the piece. The soloists are captivating: the soprano Danielle De Niese, Mezzo-Soprano Idunnu Münch, Baritone-Bass Cody Quattlebaum and tenor Nicky Spence perform with the requisite pageantry and purity, reinforced by the choir. The orchestra fleshes out the less muscular choruses to bring them in line with the stronger numbers, although the consistency does veer close to monotony at times. It is interspersed with narration from the charismatic Martina Laird and Arthur Darvill as ‘Mother’ and ‘Child’ respectively; reciting poetic prose on the themes of hope sacrifice and redemption.
The inclusion of dance adds another layer. Dan Baines, Jemima Brown and Sera Maehera accompany the music in the guise of rebel, leader and healer. They appear and disappear from the narrative, sometimes poignantly and sometimes superfluously, but always beguiling – especially Brown whose presence is quite hypnotic.
But the question remains as to how much this adds to the experience. It is often at odds with the performance, and most guilty of this is the vast video screen that splits the choir down the middle. Unavoidable, it intrudes throughout with images that bear little relation to the story, unless the references are deliberately oblique. Interesting as they are, they distract somewhat. As do the choice of costume for the narrators; a kind of Mad Max battle garb with token Biblical accessory – apocryphal and apocalyptic – the point of which misses its target.
Which is the fundamental flaw. The programme notes explain the intention to bring classical music to the masses. To make it inclusive and, I suppose, immersive. It assumes that the general population regard classical music as ‘dull and stuffy’ and that it is not something most people can relate to. Handel might not have agreed, but he would have approved of the approach. He was a showman himself after all; interested in the drama and not just the music. The multimedia elements are a response to the way the world is now. But while they might draw in a new crowd for this ‘dull and stuffy’ (the conductor’s words, not mine) music, they do little to make us follow the story and therefore capture the passion inherent in the score. Which is disengaging, instead of having the desired effect. “Messiah”, as an oratorio, has no story as such – so is not the easiest to follow. But the audience can wallow in the beauty of the music and let the imagination construct the scenes. This production unfortunately takes that away and replaces it with more confusion.