By Johan De Smet and Titus De Voogdt. Directed by Johan De Smet, with Titus De Voogdt. Produced by Kopergietery and Richard Jordan Productions, in association with Theatre Royal Plymouth, Summerhall, and Big in Belgium. At the York Theatre on Friday, April 27. Continues until May 5
There’s a lot of boredom in death. Philip (Titus De Voogdt) is ostensibly caring for his dying mother, but when we enter the theatre to see The History of the World (Based on Banalities), he’s already scampering around his on-stage kitchen like a vexed feline.
Though her sleeping form is only glimpsed through an upstage doorway, Philip’s mother looms large. She’s been stricken with Alzheimer’s and has returned home from her work as a physicist at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.
Philip’s grandfather was a magician at a seaside hotel, and so his world-view is informed by his mother’s scientific obsessions and his grandfather’s more ephemeral ones.
This Belgian play explores familiar ground—how science and magic are two sides of the same coin, and how they form a tension between the known and the unknown. Philip’s rambling monologue starts on the topic of apples, which leads him to Isaac Newton, particle physics, and, seemingly, all points beyond.
The “banalities” of the play’s title sounds at first like a bit of poor translation from Flemish, but it’s apt. The set, a humble apartment kitchen, is covered in stuff. The counters are piled high with dirty dishes. Chachkas line shelves along the walls. In one corner, there’s some luggage. In another, an old turntable.
De Voogdt touches it all. Each object, like a fetish, unlocks new memories of the chilly, complex relationship he had with his ailing mother. They were, he says, “like two trains on different tracks”.
A charismatic performer, De Voogdt is a body in constant motion. Along with juggling all those props, he parkours his way around the set—chairs and tables, and, on one occasion, inside a cupboard. Then there’s a series of magic tricks he performs. And don’t get me started on the ongoing game of paddleball. De Voogdt handles all this business with ease and delivers a straight-ahead and muscular performance.
The show is scored by guitarist Geoffrey Burton. Though he’s mostly off-stage, we first see him as a shadow looming over Philip’s mother’s bed. Later he creeps on-stage, moodily lit and in a hoodie, looking a bit like an axe-slinging Dementor. I heard a lot of Pink Floyd and a little Slash in his riffs. What does it all add up to? A muted meditation on grief, loss, and a son’s loyalty. Between the skulking guitarist, Philip’s sleight of hand, the kitchen-as-jungle-gym, and the brainy monologues, I left the theatre feeling like the play was less than the sum of its parts.
Yet the whole production had such confidence that I also wonder if I’m at fault. Did I just miss the point?