Aristobulle’s quirky and interactive brand of theatre kicked off a three-day festival to mark Alliance Française of Madras’ 60th anniversary

The Alliance Française of Madras, has been promoting French language and culture in the city for 60 years now and to celebrate the anniversary they kicked off a three-day festival of magic, dance and jazz with an act from France called Aristobulle.

The magician duo — Françoise and Renaud de Swetschint — have wowed audiences from London to Singapore with their quirky, funny and interactive brand of theatre ‘Illusion on Macadam’ that combines slapstick with magic to create an unexpected treat.

For starters, the couple is on stage even as the lights are tinkered with and the sound check is completed as the audience trickles in. Renaud is the magician, a high-strung, witty performer who is a stickler for time, while Françoise is the flighty assistant who constantly interrupts the show to change her costume or flirt openly with the male audience members. Renaud counts down the time to the opening of the play, while Françoise walks her imaginary dog around the theatre, chatting with the audience.

Before the play starts, Alliance Français of Madras’s director Benoit Olivier and vice- president Padmini Rajagopal distribute certificates to the top performing French students and talk about the raison d'être of the organisation. Meanwhile Renaud cheekily pushes back the start time of the play from 7.31, to finally start at 7.56, and the audiences already feel ‘in’ on the joke. Of course, it starts a little later because Françoise has to finish walking her imaginary dog, saunter on stage and change into her costume while Renaud and the audience wait.

The show is a mix of elementary magic tricks like metamorphosis, where Françoise gets locked in a trunk but with the big reveal, Renaud ends up in there. Renaud then asks audience members to throw imaginary carrots into an empty paper bag until a real one ends up there. And what’s a magic show without a rope trick — this one has plenty but the best gag is when Renaud decides to do a rope trick where the rope is supposed to levitate but Françoise keeps interrupting him to make eyes at a male audience member seated on the third row. Finally he gives up and dangles the rope while holding the top end, claiming the trick is done!

Some parts of the show seem designed to make the kids titter and some to cause gasps of mild horror. For instance, Renaud produces a contraption that seems to rotate Françoise’ head 360 degrees clockwise and anticlockwise that is almost brutal to watch. He then makes a broom stand up without any support and makes Françoise lie on top of the broom but it seems to impale her! Of course, the audience knows it’s just magic and she is alright but that doesn’t make it easy to watch.

The show is replete with slapstick like Renaud enacting his own peculiar lightning effects by hand. The best bits are of course when things don’t go as planned and he has to laugh it off good naturedly. For instance in the card trick, a boy from the audience picks a card that Renaud does not see. Then he drops the pack into a bucket and tries to light a cracker in the bucket. It doesn’t go off, twice! But he is third time lucky and he does get the right card.

The highlight of the show is when Renaud invites an audience member (the same one Françoise has been eyeing all evening) to be his assistant. He makes him examine a red cloth and hold it in his hand. After many rounds of his fake lightning effect, the cloth mysteriously turns into a red undergarment!

For the final hypnosis trick, Renaud has François standing on a chair with two sticks for support and then slowly takes it all away to let François levitate! It is done with such a flourish that even amateur magicians would find it impressive! Aristobulle end the show with a delightful “nanri” and if their magic hadn’t won us over already, their charm certainly does.