1917: A Phantasmagoria is undoubtedly a little bit on the odd side, but definitely entertaining. It begins with Michael Daviot, writer and performer, hiding behind a white sheet making ghostly groaning sounds, before emerging to introduce himself as the Spirit of 1917: a Christmas Carol style phantom whose role is to represent that year and so be remembered.
A very rapid and selective tour of the events of 1917 ensues. Battles, political manoeuvrings, espionage, and literature relating to the First World War feature prominently, of course. Other events include the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Finland’s declaration of independence, the death of the last Queen of Hawai’i (deposed when America invaded in 1893), Arthur Conan Doyle’s conversion to spiritualism, and the Harlem Silent Protest Parade against lynchings. In addition to the political events, Daviot also gives lip-synched performances of show tunes, in a very period-appropriate music hall style. Fact and fiction also seem to have blended somewhat, as a scene featuring fictional detective Sherlock Holmes finds its way into the mix. The mood changes as rapidly as the scene, switching from humourous to poignant to informative in the blink of an eye. Daviot’s impression of Irish poet WB Yeats’ search for a wife is particularly amusing, while the hate-filled lynching of Ell Persons in the American south is very disturbing.
Each scene is generally quite short, sometimes too short to allow the audience to work out who or what it’s about before the Spirit has moved on to a new event. As such, its educational value is somewhat questionable, but as the aim seems to be instead to give a feel for the turbulence of the year, it can be deemed a success.
Parallels between the events of a hundred years ago and those of the present are left unelucidated, challenging audiences to work it out for themselves. One might guess, however, that there is a message to be found in the selection of some of the material used – for instance in the only scene from India, which criticises a government composed of “greedy automatons.”
Daviot is a charismatic and engaging performer, who blazes through the year of world history with a great deal of energy and an impressive ability to switch rapidly between different moods. In the hands of a less skilled performer 1917: A Phantasmagoria might easily have been a confusing mess, rather than the fantastic entertainment that it is.