I confess, I had to Google the word "phantasmagoria". Apparently it's "a sequence of real or imaginary images like that seen in a dream"… which is a pretty accurate summary of this quirky, plot-free, but utterly riveting show. A one-man performance from actor Michael Daviot, who appears as a kind-of ghost of a century past, it charts the course of a single year across the globe – evoked by a series of faintly ethereal vignettes, which together tell the varied tale of 1917.
Passchendaele features of course, as does the Russian Revolution, but the phantasmagoria's biggest lesson is that history is made of more than its spotlit events. Progressing through the calendar in strict month-by-month order, Daviot cherry-picks scenes from across the world, transforming himself into a procession of thoroughly believable characters to act out the essence of the year. Along the way he shines a light onto both well-known and now-forgotten stories – and delivers a tour de force performance, as well.
The self-penned script carries us confidently through the show's disconnected structure, taking themes which diverge across continents and threading them into a single coherent whole. A couple of words of introduction are enough to take us to India, to Hawaii, or into the horror of the Great War. There's a laconic, ironic humour to much of the narration – never more so than in a hilarious scene where poet WB Yeats finds a wife – and Daviot finds just the right tone for this style of observation, setting himself apart from what he's describing while also drawing us in.
But 1917 was not, in the main, a humorous year, and Daviot can pull the mood right down when he needs to. One particularly troubling sequence – which wisely, he takes slowly, giving us time to internalise the reality of what we're seeing – involves a lynching in the southern United States, defined by such lawlessness and mediaeval mob vengeance that it's hard to comprehend we're only looking back to a century ago. Daviot explores the power of language here, placing a shocking word in the mouth of a broadly sympathetic narrator, eloquently highlighting how unremarkable and ubiquitous this racist outlook had become.
That scene also ends with one of the show's most striking images, but Mark Kydd's sparing direction is compelling throughout. There are very few props, and the only set is a plain-white silken drape – yet Daviot's physical presence fills the stage so powerfully that a world seems to form around him. The effect is almost hypnotic: he mimes an Army officer standing with a swagger stick under his arm, and your mind fills the missing detail in.
The ending is abrupt, and at first I was disappointed by the lack of a climax, but on reflection I think that may be the point. The calendar is, after all, an arbitrary human concept – and 1917: A Phantasmagoria is an arbitrary slice of human life. We are dipping into these stories, not following them from beginning to end; the world keeps turning, and life, mostly, carries on. It's a bold concept and a very different type of play, but Daviot's ghostly vision triumphantly succeeds.