A modern fairytale, with real magic.
It’s easy to forget that the ‘safe’ fairytale, in which few bad things actually happen, is a relatively modern invention. Many of the most memorable folk stories show children navigating a dark and dangerous world, in which the good faith of grown-ups cannot be taken for granted.
Germany during the close of World War II – with bombs dropping, a collapsing state, and fractured families – serves well as a setting for this tale, inspired by the true story of a German-Jewish magician whose skills allowed him to survive Auschwitz. Nivelli’s War sees a tweak to this story. In Charles Wray’s play, The Great Nivelli looks back on his childhood as the more soberly-named Ernst, and particularly on a cross-country journey with only a wily older stranger to shield him from the worst horrors of war.
This stranger – known simply as Mr H for most of their journey – is an unlikely protector. We first see him as a thief, raiding the farm where Ernst has been send to scavenge food. However, a child’s helplessness convinces him to help. Even then, he’s grudging and crotchety, while relying on guile rather than conventional heroism to keep them safe. Mr H deploys his tricks and charm to ingratiate himself with Russian soldiers and anxious aristocrats alike. The performance of Bob Kelly as this novel hero is magnetic – he’s energetic, winning and funny, even at his grumpiest moments. It’s a highly physical performance, but his emotional command of the audience and stage is real – in short, he’s a hero we can genuinely believe in, although his increasing frailty becomes apparent as the play nears its conclusion.
Kelly’s performance, along with the special effects used to illustrate the landscape and its dangers, elevate an otherwise interesting production into something quite unique. Use of special effects on stage, of course, is a difficult balancing act. Bad effects are an obvious pitfall in an industry with minimal resources, but I’ve seen productions where overuse of food effects make it hard to suspend disbelief in the main drama: somehow, an immersive display can make the audience all too aware that this previously engaging play is just a bunch of people dressing up and talking at each other. Nivelli’s war avoided both, with sparing use of footage from a ruined landscape serving as a backdrop for the journey, while audio conveyed dangers from bombs to harsh weather without intruding on the action.
If forced to single out a weak point, I’d suggest that Jack Archer’s performance as Ernst perhaps lacked the emotional range required of the roll. But that criticism feels harsh – few actors could credibly play a child of Ernst’s age while conveying the extreme life experience, and sharing a stage with Kelly on this game will inevitably attract less than flattering comparisons. Most of the other characters spend few moments on stage with Mr H, so any risk of their strong and engaged performances being outshone is contained.
The debut production of Nivelli’s War set off on a tour after playing at the Lyric, and this iteration is already bound for the New York Victory Theatre. With any luck, audiences in the rest of the island will be able to get a glimpse on its triumphant return.