Stage Struck: Could it be magic?
Nobody likes being manipulated, but there’s a delight in being dumfounded by a well-staged illusion
Line of fire: Rob Drummond’s ‘Bullet Catch’
‘Is this your card?”
At the conclusion of any well-performed magic trick I always get the same sensation: a gentle sort of wooziness. I don’t know what it is, exactly, but it’s something between a childlike sense of awe and the fresh humiliation of being played for a chump. Yes, that’s my card. Now, how did you do that?
Magicians, of course, never give away their tricks – or their illusions (“A trick is something a whore does for money,” as Gob Bluth puts it in Arrested Development). But they do seem to be sharing them with the theatre more frequently. Where magic on stage has often been an attempt to bring card-forcing and cold readings to bigger audiences, applying the methods and effects of illusionists to the theatre has created some real magic.
Take Raoul, James Thiérrée’s astonishing solo show, which came to the Abbey a couple of years ago. Battling against a storm towards a lone shack on stage, Thiérrée hammered his fists against walls of jagged steel pipes to rouse its occupant. Finally it disintegrated to reveal its terrified owner: James Thiérrée. The production finally became a disconnected stack of marvels, but here was a miracle with meaning: a man looking for himself. I would still love to know how the spectacle was achieved, and I hope I never do.
There’s a telling moment in Bullet Catch, Rob Drummond’s electrifying solo show which comes to Belfast next week, in which he performs a feat of levitation, then offers to show the audience how it’s done. In every show, most people choose to watch as he repeats the act with the artifice exposed, and your own sense of awe does a disappearing act. That is how the grandeur of an illusion cedes to the banality of a trick.
Drummond performs a lot of magic in his show, but the piece is considerably more artful than a string of “ta-dahs”. In explaining the history of the bullet catch, a routine that has claimed the lives of at least 12 professional magicians, Drummond is really telling a story about free will, wonder and manipulation. How voluntary are the actions of the volunteer? How much choice were you given when you picked a card?
People hate to be manipulated, or so they say, and yet that is exactly what we ask from magic. It may also be the chief function of art: to make us feel genuine wonder or real emotions through artificial methods. Your pride may not like it, seeing all the misdirections and trapdoors after being swept up in an illusion. But the magician and the theatre-maker know there is real delight in being dumbfounded.
When Simon Toal’s comic detective Jack Kairo first entered the stage by climbing out of a briefcase, or the soldiers of Black Watch sliced their way out of a pool table, or the disturbing shapes of weighty rubbish bags suddenly floated upwards in Bush Moukarzel’s Lippy, reality seemed to buckle and, with it, every attention sharpened.
Sure, this is theatre with something up its sleeve. But whether you submit to the illusion or query the trick, it’s always nice to wonder.