The History of the World (Based on Banalities) Shimmers with Magic

Photo by Phile Desprez

The History of the World (Based on Banalities) is the story of a young man and magician, Phillip, who has moved home to care for his mother, a physicist, dying of Alzheimer’s. The two have never had much in common, except for possibly sharing the genetic component for that tragic disease— as Phillip observes, “If the Monster wants you. The Monster gets you”. With his mother incapacitated, it falls to Phillip to piece together the story of their shared lives. Geoffrey Burton, a looming spectre on guitar, provides a haunting soundtrack. The History of the World (Based on Banalities), produced by Belgian theatre company Kopergietery, plays at the Cultch until May 5th.

Phillip (Titus De Voogdt) is a magician—using sleight-of-hand and gaps in perception to make coins disappear and fully baked cakes appear in a flash of smoke. His mother was a celebrated physicist. She spent her life scrutinizing the gaps between molecules for the force that binds everyone and everything: the elusive Higgs boson particle. With his mother incapacitated, it falls to Phillip to piece together the story of their shared lives.

He paces the untidy apartment, restless and acrobatic. He whacks a tennis ball connected to a string. Using the banal objects at hand—an apple, a balloon, some plastic dolls—he sets about trying to connect the past to the present. One mystery is how he and his mother could share the same space for so long and yet fail to connect. They were like two atoms drifting in parallel through time. While his mother drank wine at the kitchen table and sought the underlying force that connected matter to matter, Phillip looked for hidden sympathies, unseen threads: magic.

Phillip’s meditations on the history of the world and his history with his mother are punctuated by conjuring tricks. He calls a balloon to hand; things pop and appear out of nowhere. Faced with a tragic event as a kid, Phillip had vowed that, “if this was reality, I would have nothing to do with it”. Magic both underscores his monologue and, for a moment, makes us forget the thing in the next room, the disease that is taking his mother’s mind, and, soon enough, her life.

There is magic too in the way Titus De Voogdt so skillfully launches us into a meditation on the nature of matter, the essence of the Higgs Boson, or even the comedic story of his conception. The way he moved and danced about the stage had one audience member (during the Talk Back session after the play) asking if De Voogdt had worked with a professional choreographer. “That’s just how I dance in my kitchen,” replied the Belgian performer.

Music might be a kind of magic and Burton on guitar certainly invokes intense feeling. De Voogdt’s fast-paced banter is another sort of magic. But the reality of Alzheimer’s—inevitable, brutal— cannot be conjured away. “At the end of the day, the molecules just call it quits and go on to become something else.”

This quick-witted play about what it means to lose someone you love dearly—even if you don’t fully understand them—is touching, comedic, and tragic. Theatre can have its own magic. The History of the World (Based on Banalities) mesmerizes.