Lyn Gardner, September 21st, 1999
Helena Blavatsky was born in Ukraine in 1831. By her death in 1891 she had been both feted and vilified for her apparent telekinetic powers and ability to communicate with the dead. She travelled widely to Tibet and India, founded the Theosophical Society, was accused of being a fake by her former housekeeper and died in semi-disgrace having been investigated by the Society of Psychical Research and declared a fraud.
So was she a saint or a sinner, a genius or merely a tacky charlatan? Don't look for answers in Lightwork's fine performance, a really intelligent piece of theatre that sheds light on the past as it illuminates the present hut which is as open-ended as philosophical discourse.
The subject of Blavatsky is faith, our disenchantment with organised religion and our desperation to believe in something, anything, as the millennium approaches. But it is also about our faith in theatre itself, the very act, the transformations and trickery that we so readily accept as being real when we witness them on stage: Clare Bayley's razor-sharp script, with its interludes of conjuring and mind- reading, make you question not only what you think you believe but also what you are prepared to believe.
But it is the marriage of subject and form that is really exciting here. It does not diminish Andy Lavender's production to say it is strongly influenced by the work of Robert Lepage. This is a piece that wholeheartedly embraces multi-media, making intriguing use of video, but which is always characterised by its complete theatricality. Add to that terrific performances from the cast of four, a set that opens up like a Pandora's Box, and a cool rationality mixed with a wonderful sense of playfulness and you have a brilliant, fizzing evening of card tricks, conjuring, mind games and spirituality that needles away at our deepest insecurities.
One of the few unambiguous satires in O'Casey's plays concerns a theosophist, an adherent of Madam Blavatsky in her delvings into the spirit world and the afterlife. You might think if impossible to imagine anyone taking Blavatsky's musings seriously; but if you see Blavatsky at the Young Vic Studio, you may think again. It's not that Clare Bayley, the writer, or Andy Lavender, the director, are in thrall to Blavatsky's creed; on the contrary, one objection to this devised piece is that the play is insufficiently partisan, one way or another.
But think of it as an investigation of what makes you believe something, and the piece takes wing. It mixes videos and actors and conjurors. Daringly, it projects the gullibility and scepticism which greeted Blavatsky (lots of reverence, but her house-keeper denounced her as a fraud), and then thrusts a mind-reader into the audience to test its prejudices. Cleverly it conjures up vivid historical scenes — a baptism, literally, of fire, and an Indian verandah with its cane chairs and nostalgia — by flinging open the doors of a cupboard. It meanders and it sometimes likes itself too much, but it never takes itself for granted. It is a scene, though not a play, from the new face of British drama.
'Blavatsky' deviously softens us up for its discussion of New Ageism and alternative religion with a few magic tricks. First we meet the notorious nineteenth-century charlatan (or was she?) Madame Blavatsky, a 'decaying old hippopotamus' rapping at death's door. Clare Bayley's script flashes back at her life, initially in a series of mystical stunts intended to display to nonbelievers her connection to a higher spiritual power. Out of this narrative steps the excellent Paul Murray — who also plays Blavatsky's fellow Theosophical Society founder, Colonel Olcott — to induce marvel at various mind-reading and card-guessing hoodwinks. These interludes are by far the highlight of the show's first half, not simply because Murray is a likeable performer, not because the theatre he interrupts is stolid. His conjuring tricks remind the audience of how the soul leaps, but the mind bridles, at the inexplicable.
Andy Lavender's visually inventive production capitalises on that conflict. Its account of Blavatsky's life is schematic rather than dramatic, for the character hardly utters a spontaneous word. But intriguing perspectives on unorthodox belief emerge: how we accommodate it in our lives, how it can be caricatured into easily digestible signifiers and tricks. The female half of a 1990s couple has a near-death experience — seraphic lights, beckoning fitures, the works. In a terrific scene involving the pair's visit to a medium (perfectly pitched by Murray between dead-pan and piss-take), David Antrobus's well meaning Jim is tormented by his failure to access Hilary's idiosyncratic spirituality. Helen Lymbery as a curmudgeonly by twinkling Blavatsky with a rumbling Russian burr and Jane Guernier as the several doubters who blight her light complete the very effective cast of a production that demonstrates both intelligent scepticism and a keen ear for the music of the spheres.