We’re sitting in a bar opposite the Folies-Bergères, and I keep waiting for someone to produce an egg out of my ear. I am having drinks with a trio of magicians, so my expectations are high. However, when I drop a subtle hint, one explains that magicians don’t just “do” magic like that.
“When you tell people you’re a writer, do they ask you to write things for them?” asks Luis de Matos. Well, I tell him that I’ve written dating profiles for some friends, and Airbnb ones for the houses of others. But still no egg. At this point I’d settle for a coin out of my nose.
De Matos is billed as "The Master Magician" in The Illusionists, a show that has sold out on Broadway, tantalised in Toronto, and seduced at the Sydney Opera House. We're here talking because The Illusionists will be bringing its combination of classic magic tricks, Houdini-esque escapist feats and hefty dollops of Vegas-esque razzmatazz, complete with lasers, smoke, mirrors, lights and leather, to Dublin in March.
The Master Magician, who hails from Portugal, is suave, though that's not his sole speciality. "Magic," he says, "is the only art form that crosses all boundaries and cultures. It's the permanent updating of the line that separates what is possible from what is impossible." You lose out, he muses, when you get too analytical. "Sometimes people say I know how you did that. And I think, so what?"
"It's that moment of 'Wow!'" says James More, an English magician whose 2013 audition for Britain's Got Talent went madly viral, attracting 80 million hits on YouTube. "It's a reflex that we can't control, it comes from telling stories, and everything that surrounds magic."
More has been enchanting since he was eight. “I had an obsession with puppets, and I made a magic trick with a shadow box. When you see people’s reactions, you never want to do anything else.” He went to performance school because “unfortunately, Hogwarts didn’t exist”.
Magnificent male seven
There are seven magicians in The Illusionists, each with his own speciality, and the cast varies from city to city. Are all magicians men? I want to know, considering the all-male cast we are seeing that night in Paris, and the all-male cast coming to Dublin.
No one says anything for a moment or two. “Well,” finally says a lot depends on a woman taking it on and changing the stereotype,” says More.
More is “The Deceptionist”, and his admittedly mind-blowing, act makes me think of the historic role of the female magician’s assistant: those ultra-talented women who could fold themselves double or triple in boxes, or distract to the point that the attentive audience would entirely miss the sleight of hand. Magic is an ensemble piece, though it’s the headliner who tends to grab the glory.
There are, obviously, female magicians, among them Laura London, who performed for Queen Elizabeth on her 80th birthday; Christen Gerhart, a telescope operator by day who has a female-focused magic show on YouTube called Bitchcraft; and Megan Knowles-Bacon, who, in 2014 at the age of 22, became the first female officer with the Magic Circle – the organisation that had hitherto managed to represent magicians for 109 years without a woman involved.
But back to the magic at hand. The three magicians – the third being Krendl, “The Escapist” – are playing a particular trick on us as we talk. It doesn’t involve eggs appearing out of ears, or coins from any pocket or orifice. Instead, we non-magicians are completely and separately charmed by each of them. Of course “charm” is another word for a kind of magic. So I ask if that something taught in magic school?
“What do you mean?” asks de Matos. “Put it this way,” I say, “are magicians particularly good at manipulating people?” “Well, we’re good at evaluating . . . ” he replies, though they all demur on the point that they’ve probably had us half hypnotised since we sat down. “Okay,” I say, not giving up. “Do you find you’re talented at enabling people to agree with you?” There are more charming denials, but I know I’m on to something.
Capture the audience
Krendl, the American escapologist, grew up on a horse farm in Ohio. How did you decide to become adept at picking locks? "It was how my father babysat me," he says. "He locked me up . . . No, I'm kidding. I got into magic, and then I got into the escape stuff because I felt I needed to – to capture an audience."
There was also a fascination with Houdini, who has clearly influenced his act. Krendl’s personal best is five minutes underwater. “You have to focus on your heart rate. You know you’re losing consciousness, because your fingers go numb.”
They have to leave to get ready for the show. But then Krendl comes back.
“Do you want me to do something?” he asks. I try not to show my over-excitement. He bends a fork. Just like that, the fork lays across his finger and just sort of drips, like Salvador Dalí got at it with a paint brush in front of my eyes. I’m sold.
We drink a bottle of wine – though not Krendl, who can’t eat or drink for several hours before a show: “Every single thing your body does is using up oxygen,” he explains. And when you’re suspended upside down in a tank of water with handcuffs on your wrists and ankles, and fishing about for a paper clip to pick the locks with, every second counts. You wouldn’t want to be doing anything as mundane as digesting.
“Does that mean you have iron self-control?” I ask. “No,” he says in such a way as to suggest that, when he’s not holding his breath, he must be lots of fun.
I’m not going to spoil any surprises about the show, but I will say that the technical requests for staging it include goldfish, and that I suddenly feel very paltry in my desire for an egg out of my ear. In fact, I am amazed, astounded, staggered and delighted in equal measure. Sure some of it is ritzy and glitzy, but all of it is good old-school fun, with steampunk dancers for good measure.
True, some critics have been sniffy, and the show does seem to take itself seriously, with portentous music and dramatic lighting, but then it undercuts that by providing variety-style delight. Parts are almost poetic; other times alternate between holding my breath, gasping and laughing.
Do the thrills match up to the presentation? Only if you let yourself go. And why not do that? After all, losing yourself in wonder is a kind of magic.
The Illusionists is at Dublin's Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from March 14th to 19th.