Moving in mysterious ways
Article from The Independent, 17 February 1993 in which Sarah Hemming talks to illusionists Paul Kieve and Philippe Genty about putting the magic back into theatre. Full version here.
‘I remember seeing Peter Pan at the Palladium when I was about six and being really upset that I could see the wires and could see how it was done,’ says Paul Kieve. Twenty years later he has made good his revenge by bringing proper, no- strings effects to the West End.
Kieve is the unseen force behind the magic in The Invisible Man, Ken Hill’s adaptation of H G Wells’s thriller about a pre-Amityville horror, who wrecks the peace of a quiet village by running amok in a state of invisibility. Hill’s stage adaptation was a hit at Theatre Royal, Stratford East, last year and has just transferred to the Vaudeville Theatre. The Invisible Man is not the only box of tricks on the London stage this month: in two weeks, Philippe Genty’s company arrives at Sadler’s Wells with Forget Me Not, the latest of the director’s mesmerising pieces using surreal visual effects. The theatre of illusion is making a mark.
Though staged tongue-in-cheek and often played for laughs, The Invisible Man relies heavily on visual effects. So the Theatre Royal sent the script to Kieve, a young illusionist who had been doing regular magic turns at the theatre’s variety nights for six years.
‘I thought it was all possible,’ he recalls. ‘There were lots of floating objects I could use to suggest an invisible person. Obviously magicians have made objects float before – they’ve made balls and even people float – so it was a matter of adjusting certain illusions that were already in existence.’
Kieve starts modestly, with a pan that lifts itself off the back of a door, and builds up to several wonderful scenes of invisible business which have baffled even members of the Magic Circle: drawers are tugged open and plundered by thin air, fights are conducted with floating weapons and, in one scene, the invisible man peels off his mask to reveal a void.
‘I tried not to go for easy options,’ says Kieve. ‘Like the unmasking – I wanted to do this from the bottom of the face upwards so that you would see a gap appear with the top of his head still bandaged. It’s thinking one step ahead of what people are going to expect.’
As well as The Invisible Man, Kieve has also been asked to do the magic effects for the children’s show The Witches, for the RSC’s Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde and for a new play by the Berliner Ensemble. He thinks that, as his list of employers lengthens, theatres may be discovering the potential of illusion.
‘I think people are starting to realise you can do quite filmic effects. People haven’t seen good illusion on stage for a long time. At the turn of the century there was a tradition of it – it was film that knocked magicians off the top of the bill.’
While using magic tricks to underpin a comedy like The Invisible Man is enjoyable, one wonders how Kieve might tackle a more serious effect, such as the ghost in Hamlet. We have grown used to minimal, even internalised ghosts, but there was a time when the appearances of Hamlet’s father called for a spectacular illusion. Kieve relishes the idea of achieving something really eerie.
‘I’d like to go the whole way and get a ghost – a transparent person – on the stage. I think that would be the most magical way of doing it . . . The ghost trick was first done in 1860 in London with an illusion called ‘Pepper’s Ghost’. It created a transparent person on stage walking around. I suppose the best way to describe how it works is if you’re in a room at night with a dim light on you can see a semi- transparent image in the window – the darker it is outside, the more solid the image. The original technique was to place a piece of glass over the entire stage and you would have an actor in the orchestra pit who was very strongly lit. The image would then appear on stage and the movements would be very carefully rehearsed so they co-ordinated with the actors. It only really works if you’ve got the audience on one level. I’d like to reproduce that at some point: it was a great milestone in magic and illusion.’
But Kieve points out that half the art of using magic in a play lies in not doing it so well that you upstage the action.
‘In Macbeth, for the ‘Is this a dagger which I see before me?’ speech, you could actually have a dagger in the air floating in front of him. But you’d have to decide whether you wanted to suggest that, or whether it’s actually stronger if you think it’s in his mind. Plus there is the danger of being funny unless it’s very carefully done.
‘Magic in a play crosses every area – lighting, sound, set design, costumes, script writing, directing. For success you need to be involved from Day One.’
For Philippe Genty, the French director, puppeteer and illusionist, all these elements are completely interwoven. Genty does not perform magic tricks in his shows, but they are often a succession of trompe-l’oeils: in Driftings and Desirs Parades, which he brought to Britain, objects constantly metamorphosed, and he used performers and puppets together to play with perspective. The results are dreamlike and captivating.
‘For me the illusion is linked to the fact that when something impossible or illogical happens, the rational thinking of the spectator drops,’ says Genty. ‘In one of my shows, a lady is opening a parcel and then the parcel eats the lady and begins to grow. This is something that cannot be explained and so at this moment any rational approach has dropped and the spectator is ready to open the gate to his subconscious. Then we can move into areas which are close to a dream structure.’
Genty achieves his disquieting effects through a combination of imagination and logic, working backwards from the image he would like to achieve. ‘First I have a concept, then I look for images and things that would express the concepts, then I have to find physical solutions.’
Genty’s shows never employ language ‘because the words lead in one direction and don’t leave any space’ but it would be fascinating to see the results of allying his fecund visual imagination with a rich classic text. He concedes that to work on Shakespeare might not be at odds with his preoccupations – ‘I think Shakespeare is so universal because he speaks to the subconscious’ – and offers some insight into how he might set about using his skills to create the ghost in Hamlet.
‘I would work with the idea of the ghost being something from inside Hamlet. So a way of solving it would be to have a thing that is attached to Hamlet and starts to talk and respond. It would be a very tiny thing and then start to grow and take different sizes – he would talk to it, but it would still be part of him, something he manipulates. I would try to metamorphose the object into several shapes.’
A very different ghost from that envisaged by Paul Kieve, but potentially just as fascinating. Kieve suggests that it might be time for illusionists to wrestle the effects crown back from the film-makers.
‘Audiences know now that, however amazing an effect might be, you can do almost anything with film. They think it’s just computer graphics or something. So I think it’s gone full circle in a way and people are looking for new things in theatre. There is a whole area here, and I think we’ve just begun to tap it.’