The French Drop
“Power is an illusion.”
It is interesting isn’t it how little culture translates across the Channel? The last huge hit I can remember from Paris was Yasmin Reza’s Art which at that time was one of the shortest plays in the West End. It ran and ran in London, the perfect vehicle for good profits with just three actors, two of whom could be well known names. The simple premise was a joke about two men falling out about the other’s definition of what constitutes great art and then bitching about each other.
And so I come to a show which has had an unimaginably long run-in Paris since 2014 and is still running today albeit in an altered version. Add the talents of actor Norah Lopez Holden and as translator, the author of The brilliant P Word Waleed Akhtar, and the Art of Illusion is sadly illusionary in its promise.
The show purports to be about the origins of film from early days of magic to the 20th century but the story is convoluted, intricate and hard to follow. We start in 1984 with April (Bettrys Jones) losing her bag on the Metro and it being returned to her by December (Brian Martin). He has found her passport in the bag and considers her a great beauty. There is another family who are in different eras. I have needed the text to sort these people out as I couldn’t grasp all of it from the production.
In 1828 in Tours, there is the Watchmaker (Martin Hyder) who is also the opening magician and doubles as The Conjuror is making a red handkerchief disappear and asking us that if we can accept that the world is turning but that we have no sense of motion, cannot we also accept that the handkerchief has actually disappeared not that we have been deceived by some slight of hand?
The great grandson of an 1805 watchmaker is ten years old in 1871, Georges (Norah Lopez Holden) son of Catherine (Rina Fatania) and Louis (Kwaku Mills) who is a bootmaker. Thrown into the mix in Russia is an elaborate automaton which plays Chess, a later explanation of which is that it a was a real person who lost their legs and was then concealed in a cabinet and under a gold mask. Confused? You will be!
Add a football event in 1984 where France is competing in the UEFA European Finals, first against Yugoslavia and there is an opportunity for flag waving from a football crowd of two or three. Later the final against Portugal gives Norah Lopez Holden the opportunity to show off her fluent Portuguese, she will be bi-lingual in English and Spanish.
At sone point someone discovers an old theatre in a cellar in Paris. Bravo to the translator for taking on this multi-place, multi-era play but the fault lies not with Mr Akhtar but the overarching ambition of the original! The whole cast of six work very hard in 27 different roles. Martin Hyder is called upon to perform several magic tricks, notably the saw the lady in thirds and some card tricks. Norah Lopez Holden stands out but she deserves a better play to demonstrate her ability as in Othello and Hamlet.
One has to hope that the orphaned and abandoned handbag thief December will take a DNA test to establish his parentage. Hampstead Theatre you completely lost me on this one and the only way for 2023 is up!
The Art of Illusion
Written by Alexis Michalik
Translated by Waleed Akhtar
Directed by Tom Jackson Greaves
Director: Tom Jackson Greaves
Designer: Simon Kenny
Illusion: Ben Hart
Lighting Designer: Matt Haskins
Sound Designer: Yvonne Gilbert
Running Time: One hour 40 minutes without an interval
Booking to 28th January 2022