Nivelli's War

Hope and magic collide in Cahoots NI's latest inspirational production for audiences of all ages

It's funny how, once in a blue moon, a random snippet of information can spark the imagination, inspire an idea and take on a remarkable new life of its own.

Herbert Levin was a German-Jewish magician, who changed his name to the more exotic, Italianised Nivelli (Levin, more or less, backwards), both to create a more glamorous stage persona and to avoid transportation to the Nazi death camps.

In the first respect, he was reasonably successful but, having briefly found fame and popularity, he was rounded up and taken to Auschwitz, where he escaped the gas chambers by performing magic tricks for the guards. When the war ended, he moved to the United States and forged a glittering career as The Great Nivelli.

nivellis war

A heart-warming story in its own right, Levin's experience has now been expanded and transformed into an inspirational piece of theatre by two gifted professionals who understand instinctively how to capture, hold and ignite youthful imaginations.

Cahoots NI artistic director Paul Bosco McEneaney came across the story of Levin/Nivelli in one of the mountain of magic books that he routinely devours as part of his daily fare. He showed it to the award-winning writer Charles Way, whose play A Spell of Cold Weather was produced by Cahoots in the spring of 2012.

The two have since developed a close mutual simpatico, here manifesting itself in a skilfully structured and layered script, which will appeal to audiences of all ages. Through the combined creative vision of set and costume designer Sabine Dargent, composer Garth McConaghie and lighting designer Sinead McKenna, its presentation is a thing of profound, sometimes unsettling, beauty.

The colour palette is particularly telling. Grey, the colour of dust, of rubble, of ashes, of despair, is dominant, here and there accented by a flash of scarlet in a floral dress, a shiny apple, a bunch of balloons. And over it all hovers a simple yet hypnotic piano score.

Emerging in stately fashion out of the darkness, Dan Gordon's Nivelli cuts a charismatic, mysterious figure. Cloaked, top-hatted and bearded, his stern exterior can morph in a flash into the delight of an excited child, as he conjures out of thin air a glistening wand or a jangling set of keys.

He studies a pavement poster advertising his long-awaited return to home turf, an event received with flustered excitement by the theatre's stage manager – the first of Faolan Morgan's quartet of gangly, loose-limbed characterisations.

As the stage manager exits to make a cup of tea for his important guest, Nivelli remains behind, quietly soaking up the atmosphere of these familiar surroundings, mentally retreating into a childhood that has left an indelible mark on his adult life.

The story spools back to a rosy family portrait in the suburbs of Frankfurt. The war is hurtling to an end, wreaking terror and havoc upon hard-working citizens. In Sam Clemmett's sweetly intense portrayal, only child Ernst, his adoring mother (warmly played by Kerri Quinn) and his unseen ailing grandfather struggle to preserve a sense of normality, while his father is away at the front.

But with their city crumbling around them, Ernst is put on a train to the country, to stay with his Tante Sophie – a vividly expressive performance by Abigail McGibbon. There, events take a surreal turn.

Tasked with guarding his aunt's chickens from the attentions of a predatory fox, Ernst encounters a thief of a different kind: a desperate, nameless man, who creeps out at night to steal turnips and tomatoes from the garden. This man, whom he christens Mr H, will turn out to be his protector, his inspiration and his friend, as together they set out, like Pozzo and Lucky, on the long journey back to Frankfurt.

Dublin actor Bob Kelly gives a masterclass in European-influenced physical theatre, his tortured face and wracked body bearing the brands of all manner of human ravages, shown in unflinching detail via back-projected black and white archive images. But beneath his ragged clothes and cowering demeanour, Mr H has a hidden genius for magic and illusions.

It is a gift he calls upon along the road, to evade the violence of Russian and American soldiers and to infiltrate his and his young companion's way into the luxurious comfort of a wealthy bourgeois household in the depths of the German countryside.

Theirs is a gruelling trek through the chaotic aftermath of war, an ordeal fraught with fear, hunger, peril and uncertainty; it is an odyssey representative of so many others of that time. But as Ernst will learn, danger and hardship are no strangers to a man who finally owns up to his Jewish birthright and its associated horrors.

As the years pass, the fortunes of this unlikely couple take off on contrasting trajectories, heartbreakingly captured in the last of many poignant moments by the simultaneous images of the imposing Great Nivelli and a gaunt old balloon seller, to whom he owes so much.

We thought we had seen something approaching theatrical perfection last year in the shape of Cahoots NI's Egg. Then came Death, Duck and the Tulip. Now we have Nivelli's War. This is world class work being produced right here in Belfast.

Following its recent run at the Belfast Children's Festival, the show is scheduled for a short tour of Ireland. But it is crying out to be seen in countries far from here, where the quality of production and the impact of content upon young imaginations can be recognised for their universal significance.