From a red handkerchief disappearing within the hands of a magician to fake footage in the early twentieth century, Hampstead Theatre’s latest international import is the UK premiere of The Art of Illusion, a 2014 French play exploring the history of magical performance and inventive approaches to entertaining audiences. Splicing together three biographical stories including two tradesmens’ sons – a watchmaker and a bootmaker – who went on to define the presentation of the magician across two centuries, with a fictional contemporary story about family and identity, Alexis Michalik’s sprawling piece develops in several directions at once and while it takes a little slight of hand to bring the loose ends back together to create a satisfactory conclusion, there is certainly plenty of theatricality to enjoy along the way.
Hampstead Theatre is traditionally first out of the blocks each year with a new production in its downstairs space. To open 2023, it gives us a play about the art of magic and its connection to the theatrical spaces that now house the magic show. And while many illusionists and showmen have brought their performances to London’s venues with some regularity, few plays have ever examined the magic-making process and personnel in any detail. Instead, this world has been the backdrop to murder mystery shows like Jonathan Creek, films including The Prestige and Now You See Me or the preserve of novelists with works like Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. These are the major influences for writer Michalik who presents his three tales in parallel using a Vaudevillian narrative style to tell a continuous story across 100-minutes.
Tom Jackson-Greaves’s production in the smaller Hampstead space is presented in the three-quarter round with a central circular podium designed by Simon Kenny that speaks well to the traditional magic show feel led by a Master of Ceremonies who guides the audience through these interlaced lives, acts as the defining advisor to two of the would-be magicians, setting them on their path to greatness, and provides philosophical and sometimes elliptical reflections for the audience. The overriding concept is that life is a circle not a line, and that everyone will have their time eventually. Underlying this are questions about faith, fate and magic – depending on which if any of these concepts the characters believe in – as well as later, mathematics as a guiding principle, any and all of which create forms of illusion that can deceive the eyes into believing logical impossibilities. Michalik doesn’t get too bogged down in how tricks work or whether audiences should focus on rationality over magic (which is perhaps The Art of Illusion‘s biggest weakness in not considering how and why audiences choose or even need to believe in the illusion in the first place) but presents instead these human stories of magic-makers with different degrees of success.
The first feels like a personal quest to distinguish between American illusionist Harry Houdini and French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin who inspired him and from whom Houdini derived his name. How a watchmaker became the “father of modern magic” across only six years of performance is Michalik’s focus, presenting choice snippets of a story that took the young Robert-Houdin from parental expectation within the family business and marriage through the chance discovery of a book of magic to utilising his horological skills to create automata that fascinated contemporary audiences.
Robert-Houdin’s name is spoken with reverance and awe throughout The Art of Illusion and Michalik colourfully recreates decisive moments of his life including an encounter with an Italian travelling conjurer who swept the younger man along and helped to shape his craft. It is a great scene, staged with all the pizzazz you could expect a nineteenth-century magic show to contain with a red-cloaked magician and plenty of atmospheric lighting as Robert-Houdin learns and then performs some of the key illusions in front of this audience including the disappearing handkerchief and the crowd-pleasing zig-zag woman – something the actors have worked hard to perfect in what is essentially a magical montage sequence.
But most important here is the way the writer toys with time, using the Italian teacher to tell a much earlier story set in the 1770s of the Mechanical Turk trick, again dramatised as a flashback by the actors while the eternal narrator explains the political significance and purpose of the illusion. What Michalik attempts here is the connection between different key moments in the history of performance and the growing sophistication of conjuring techniques using the biographies of the men (predominantly) who advanced the art form over hundreds of year. This is both as entertainment but also as personal necessity for the artists either requiring escape from their existing situations and/or an outlet for their manufacturing and creative talents. That this goes hand-in-hand with a concept of performance, of acting a part is particularly illuminating, and one of this play’s deeper themes is the extent to which the two major illusionists are more themselves when they perform than in the lives previously laid out for them by their parents. Michalik tends then to wrap stories around one another to create shifts in tone and personal development by using theatre techniques that create illusion, taking the viewer down into layers of narrative before realigning the pieces of his play once more.
The second story features George Méliès whose ultimate purpose takes far longer to reveal itself but who is deeply inspired by Robert-Houdin and the automata he created. Taking place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this strand reveals the technological innovation that inspired Méliès’s artistic development from painter to photographer and ultimately filmmaker that simultaneously advance concepts of illusion and illusionists. There are clear parallels with the previous story; both fairly disaffected young men wanting to find a different life away from their fathers’ business and both enchanted by notions of performance and the artistry of theatrical presentation.
By interweaving these two biographies, Michalik is able to find these interesting points of cross-reference, the younger man inspired by the older while equally emphasising Robert-Houdin’s role in laying the foundations that Méliès then built upon for those who followed. But the focus in Méliès’s segment is on the development of film and the establishment of footage designed to wrong foot the audience – not least the faked filming of a UK coronation screened in France ahead of the actual ceremony which was unexpectedly delayed. Michalik incorporates this into the story in two ways, first culminating in the film A Trip to the Moon which, the writer argues, is the apex of this filmmaker’s development as an illusionist and an innovator who, like Robert-Houdin, was interested in the mechanical and technological advances that make magic possible. The second is in giving the final story an end point as the characters pursue both Robert-Houdin and Méliès legacy for modern magic and special effects.
Set in 1984, the seemingly chance meeting of December, a young man of unknown parentage, and April, a mathematician who builds safes, when he steals and returns her handbag is the least convincing trajectory, stretching the concept of illusion a little too far in the search for an overly tidy contemporary relevance. December and April, their connection and meaning to one another becomes the reason for this story and through which Michalik makes the case for the importance of the two earlier magicians. But as the pair reflect on their own lives as non-performers, the scenario is too thinly realised to truly advance the underlying purpose of The Art of Illusion.
Michalik shows that April’s application of mathematics to her work and an uncanny ability to recognise patterns of ludicrous coincidence in their lives is part of the same evolution of magic that Robert-Houding and Méliès practised only underpinned by a different type of mechanics. But the presentation of this story is too soapy, even occasionally sentimental with its focus on identity, as it seeks to place the importance of love and family above all else. While it concludes, quite appropriately with a 2014 addendum, that video games immersion is the direct descendant of the magic show and film, the build up to that single statement is too elaborate, even superfluous to the biographies of Robert-Houdin and Méliès – after all the best magic tricks are deceptively simple.
A more impressive trick is pulled off by the cast who play multiple roles, often in quick succession. Jackson-Greaves’s production requires just six actors who begin as theatre staff and in a meta-narrative begin to assume positions in the story as excellent Master of Ceremonies Martin Hyder bestows a role and an indicative costume upon them, emphasing the deceptive nature of performance in the process with which this play is concerned. That Hyder then becomes the Italian conjurer who guides Robert-Houdin towards his destiny, the antiques dealer who helps Méliès along and a narrator who promises that patience will be rewarded seems fitting, and Hyder relishes his role as guide and oracle.
Kwaku Mills plays Robert-Houdin and a series of Méliès’s mistress-muses while Norah Lopez-Holden (recently an impressive Ophelia at the Young Vic) makes her Méliès a wide-eyed enthusiast first for magic and then for moviemaking. Brian Martin as December, Bettrys Jones as April and Rina Fatania as April’s friend complete a cast who deliver their principal roles along with an assortment of wives, friends, collaborators and confidants across three centuries, often with only moments to change a jacket. Collectively they conjure up these three worlds entirely and with immaculate timing.
Ultimately, more could have been made of the theatricality of The Art of Illusion and the solemn adoption and presentation of character by the actors – a device that becomes lost in the story as the the play itself unfolds. Neither does the text dig particularly deep into the motivations and emotional lives of its leads, skimming over the surface of the frustrations and failures that ultimately drove them to achieve eventual success – a key characteristic of innovators who rarely succeed first time. Why both Robert-Houdin and Méliès as practical and scientific-minded post-Enlightenment men sought out the falsity and allure of magic is never addressed particularly as superstition gave way to rational thought during their lifetimes, nor why magic continues to appeal to contemporary audiences who know as they watch it that what they see is nothing more than an illusion. It is certainly entertaining, though, to see such tricks performed within a semi-fictional narrative about their creators. And that is where Michalik’s drama excels, in recounting the inter-related lives of two leading but semi-forgotten French innovators whose contribution to the history of magical performance is as important as their tricks were showstopping.