longstanding French hit gets lost in translation

    (Robert Day)

(Robert Day)

Something is lost in the translation here. A long-running hit in Paris, Alexis Michalik’s 2014 play spans over two centuries in 100 minutes and weaves an intricate tale around the history of French magic and cinema pioneers. But this English version is deliberately unprofessional, brimming with silly robbery, clumsy tricks, and playful British regional accents.

Director Tom Jackson Greaves is probably more to blame than Waleed Akhtar, the adaptation that influenced Bush’s play The P Word game last year, but the dialogue here is far from brilliant. Anyway: This is the latest in a series of misfires from Hampstead, which recently lost its Arts Council grant. Unfortunately, it’s also a bad start for London theater in 2023.

Michalik primarily explores the history of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the son of a watchmaker who became the father of modern magic in the 1840s, and Georges Méliès, the son of the illustrator who took over Robert-Houdin’s Paris theater and created the first science fiction. The 1902 movie Journey to the Moon.

But the narrative also includes 1700s automata and 20th century automata, such as Vaucanson’s Digesting Duck and the chess-playing Mechanical Turk.pearl century. Here, a pregnant safe designer named April and a vasectomized thief named December investigate the history of illusions and fall in love against the backdrop of the 1984 Euro football final. Their unconventional romances are clearly designed to provide hey-presto surprises.

Confused? Actually you won’t. The various stories are clearly and elegantly intertwined and held together by a master of all-purpose ceremonies, masterfully portrayed by Martin Hyder. Still, I imagine they look clever even in the ongoing Paris production.

Martin Hyder, Kwaku Mills, Norah Lopez-Holden and Rina Fatiana in The Art of Illusion at the Hampstead Theater (Robert Day)

Martin Hyder, Kwaku Mills, Norah Lopez-Holden and Rina Fatiana in The Art of Illusion at the Hampstead Theater (Robert Day)

And here you can get very bored, as every quick transition between scenes introduces a new squirming, fluttering cartoon parade. Gender roles are fluidly, hilariously assigned to political influence: female characters all giggle or grumble while creative men suffer and shake paintbrushes or decks of cards. It’s not the players fault: they were told to do it that way.

If it weren’t so crude, the staging would be admirably simple. Journeys are marked by a tatty toy car swinging in front of us, or a broom-sweeping car. The year each scene takes place is painted on a set or costume. Designed by “illusion consultant” Ben Hart, the tricks are simple and straightforward.

Michalik’s idea that magic is the product of craftsmanship, hard work, and endless frustration, as well as our collective need for curiosity, is fading. The chauvinistic pride underlying Gallic creativity would probably go better in Paris.

The frustrating thing is that there are fascinating things here, fact and myth: 20pearlEscape expert Harry Houdini has indeed chosen his name as a tribute to Robert-Houdin, and illuminates contemporary concerns about early automaton tales and concocted visual narratives, artificial intelligence and fake news.

But the smugness and sexist, football-based jokes in Michalik’s original are exacerbated and subtleties are hidden in this misguided production. Abracadabra? Don’t be abrasive.

Hampstead Theatre, January 28; hampsteadtheatre.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *