Writing about Derren Brown’s latest show is slightly challenging for a couple of reasons. First, it is hard to get across the detail of his act when the nature of the “magic” is very much contained in the amazement that the performance brings. Second, even were I to be a sufficiently skilled writer to convey this, he asked those attending not to spoil things for future audiences (live and probably on DVD or TV) by giving away what he did. So, with those two caveats in mind, here are my thoughts. At least with the space of a couple of weeks between seeing the show and writing about it, the latter will be easier to do!
DB’s magic is magic in the sense used by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Magic of Reality. Those who have seen the many different TV specials DB has done will know that he is of the modern school of magic which involves demystifying the act by showing how the tricks are done. However, as with Dawkins’ explanations and descriptions of nature, knowing how amazing things are done doesn’t make them less amazing – indeed, done well, as DB does them, they make the audience more amazed that he can actually do them. Prodigious feats of memory and manual dexterity can be more wonderful than the mere channelling of unexplained mystical forces by a Harry Potter, where much of the magic is rendered mundane in the magical world (and where a few eccentric wizards like Arthur Weasley are perceptive enough to see the wonder in things we muggles consider mundane, like electricity). The biggest targets for criticism by DB are the mystics and clairvoyants for their charlatanism – just as the everyday use of Divination is generally derided in the Harry Potter books (even if in that magical world there are rare acts of genuine and terrifying prophesy).
In his latest show, DB goes a stage beyond the core of previous shows of his I’ve seen on TV. Those often tended to rely on the basic tricks of the trade for close magicians of sleight of hand and misdirection. Both are, of course, used liberally in this show too. However, the underlying theme of DB’s commentary here is about how predictable people are and how we are “easily” misdirected because we don’t know or let ourselves believe that we are predictable. We’re all individuals, or so we’d like to think. Yet, as advertising executives, marketeers and politicians know, we also, however much we deprecate the idea, fall into various categories where we are similar to other people – if we’re in our 40s we’ve probably thought about whether the career we have chosen is the one we want to carry on doing for the next 25 years, if we’re in our late 20s, we probably find our parents less irritating than we did when we were young adults and so on.
This simple message drives the various tricks and demonstrations through much of the show both directly and indirectly. The message is communicated indirectly in the highly personal monologues about DB’s own childhood and how he developed his skills – a clear theme is how he is or was something of an outsider, doing things most thought odd and how it has taken him a long time to become comfortable with and capable of using that fact rather than trying to conform with categories he didn’t fit into. So, we hear of his struggles with coming out as gay and other such things. He is, like Harry Potter, the boy that lived.
The central part of the act is deceptively simple and involves inducing a trance state in audience members. This is something which has been done by many mesmerists in the past, although DB is clear that he is not hypnotising anyone. Unlike an end of the pier hypnotism act, there’s no making the subject pretend to be a dog or do other cruel things for the amusement of the rest of the audience. Yet, the overall effect is still spectacular. I could possibly describe it further without really spoiling the act for anyone. I went with Mrs B who had heard all about the act from colleagues who had been to an earlier show in the tour last year, one of whom on that occasion was selected by DB as the subject to go on stage for the trance. Another of those colleagues was also with us. Yet, when Mrs B and I disappointedly realised that we hadn’t had the trance state induced in us, we noticed that our friend, who had seen the show and seen his colleague up on stage during the same part of the show, had also succumbed to the trance. This made the point, without it being part of DB’s actual act, that knowing about what happened and how, would not be a defence against the power of the illusion.
If you have seen DB on TV and enjoyed it or if you just want to be amazed at what can be achieved without magic in the sense of the inexplicable, I’d strongly recommend going to one of the shows in the remainder of the Infamous tour.