Magic is no longer about sparkly shirts and pulling rabbits from hats, says Laura Marsh. Modern illusionists give audiences an insight into their own mindsby Laura Marsh / April 24, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Derren Brown among his audience: the masks were for an experiment on the loss of individuality
Over a Coke in an Essex pub, Todd Landman is rummaging through his satchel. “Now, you’ve seen one of these before,” he says, producing a blue crystal on a long silver chain. He is showing me the pendulum trick, a staple of beginner’s guides to magic. A volunteer holds one end of the chain, while the illusionist commands the weight to swing, apparently by sheer psychic force—though any textbook will tell you the volunteer’s tiny, unconscious muscle movements are really responsible. This effect, Landman says, is the basis for “table turning, ouija and all kinds of other magic.”
Landman is an illusionist. He’s also a professor of political science, editor of a nine-volume work on human rights, and director of the Institute for Democracy and Conflict Resolution at Essex University. “I don’t present myself as an urban, gritty street magician, or as the all-powerful demonstrator and mephisto—doing the ‘look into my eyes’ stuff,” he says. His on-stage character is that of the “well-travelled polymath.”
Landman is an example of how the performance of “magic” has been transformed in the last decade. For this new wave of magicians, shows are sophisticated performance art, far removed from circus-style trickery of sawing women in half. Many of today’s top performers are fervent rationalists, who claim to use modern knowledge of psychology to manipulate perception. Their popularity appears to rest on a new kind of response—that people enjoy being tricked when it tells them something about the workings of their own minds.
In Britain, the figurehead for the new magic is Derren Brown. His tricks are the most elegant, his explanations the most ingenious and his TV shows the most watched. And the most controversial: 700 people complained to Channel 4 about his 2004 programme Séance, in which he appeared to contact the dead, although he demonstrated at the end of the show that he had done no such thing. In 2003, 3.3m people tuned in to watch him perform a “Russian roulette” stunt, apparently on live TV; he has never confirmed whether he actually played the game. His touring show, Svengali, is currently winding its way across Britain, with shows in Newcastle, Manchester and Nottingham this May. There are even plans to take it to Broadway at the end of this year.