The History of the World (Based on Banalities): theatrically hot, emotionally cool

In The History of the World (Based on Banalities), actor Titus De Voogdt aims a rifle over his shoulder.

The History of the World (Based on Banalities) does an excellent job of taking aim. Sometimes, it hits its mark.

The History of the World (Based on Banalities) is a monologue for a boy about his failed connection with his mother. And that’s ironic because Phil’s Mom Martine, a physicist, was fascinated by the Higgs boson particle, which physics tells us connects everything—and all of us.

In the everyday world, Martine wasn’t so good at connecting. When Phil was still very young, she abandoned him in their home in Belgium and followed her career to the CERN facility in Switzerland. When she returned, years later, she had Alzheimer’s. As we watch The History of the World, Phil is caring for Martine, who is in the back room. All we see is her blanketed feet at the end of a hospital bed.

Texturally, this show is fantastic. Titus De Voogdt, who co-wrote the text with director Johan De Smet, plays Phil with pre-adolescent vitality, scampering around the dirty-kitchen set like a monkey, clambering up the cupboards, leaping onto the table. He’s so frank and scruffy that you can almost smell his socks.

But there’s turmoil, too. Sometimes, Phil stops jabbering and his angst takes over—in the form of loud, grinding riffs from an electric guitar. At first, we only see the guitarist’s looming shadow in Mom’s room, but then he makes a hooded, spectral entrance shrouded in smoke that must surely be sulphurous.

All of this is terrific—and so is the book that catches fire when Phil is reading it to Martine.

But The History of the World (Based on Banalities) fails to build—or maybe a better way to say it, given the text’s associative structure, is that it fails to acquire increasing resonance.

Phil tells us early on that it’s always felt that he and Martine are on different tracks, and it becomes clear that his track is physical while hers is intellectual. “If you ever need proof of out-of-body experiences,” Phil jokes, “go to an academic conference.” But, while the show’s production—including De Voogdt’s insistent embodiment— favours Phil, the text, to its detriment, favours Martine.

The script scurries down all sorts of intellectual hallways, including a neat explanation of the Higgs boson particle that involves cannonballs and straw, and, on a theoretical level, this can be interesting. According to physics, we are told, most apparent mass is actually space; it’s only a quirky little piece called the Higgs boson particle that allows anything to cohere. The relationship between Phil and Martine is mostly absence, but something still holds it together and defines them.

It’s hard to get a grip on what that something is, though, and that’s because the script for The History of the World stays stuck in its head. A secondary character is introduced, for instance, only to promptly die. That character is used as an illustration of mortality and transience, but that use is so deliberate—and so narratively unintegrated—that it has little emotional impact.

In my experience, The History of the World establishes its thematic, emotional, and theatrical terms early on—but none of those terms amplify appreciably, so they don’t fully live up to their promise.

Still, it’s a pleasure to be in De Voogdt’s presence. There are many memorable images in The History of the World and some terrific lines. “Every dying individual,” Phil says, “is a museum that burns down.”

THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD (BASED ON BANALITIES) By Johan De Smet and Titus De Voogdt. Produced by Kopergietery, Richard Jordan Productions and Theatre Royal Plymouth in association with Summerhall and Big in Belgium. At the York Theatre on Thursday, April 26. Continues until May 5.

Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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