Svengali: The captivating show by Derren Brown
As a huge Derren Brown fan, I was delighted to see Svengali return to London, having kicked myself for missing it the first time around. With a persona that shifts continually between broodingly enigmatic and charmingly self-deprecating, Brown’s ability to captivate and endear an audience is pivotal to the successful execution of his mind-boggling tricks. In his cajolingly conspiratorial manner, Brown requests that audience members do not give away details of Svengali – the surprise element; the mystery and the sense of fun trepidation are all part of the show.
On the face of it, this creates a problem for a reviewer: how to review a show without actually saying anything about it? Fortunately, Brown has now created such a hum of fascination around himself that his name is synonymous with the baffling, the startling and the downright spooky. He is, in his own words, “a borderline national treasure”. As much as the startling feats he performs, it’s Brown’s showmanship that draws us in – his charm and command over an audience is genuinely hypnotic.
A few things that can be said about Svengali without breaking the audience’s pact of silence: it is one of Brown’s creepiest shows yet. Particularly after the interval, the fun and cheeky persona is temporarily packed away as we are introduced to the true star of the show. Typically, the performance also relies heavily on audience participation for demonstrations of “mind-reading” and an amusingly unsettling group hypnotism. It is this element of participation that makes a Brown show something startling and memorable.
Many cynics, convinced that Brown uses stooges, will be forced to reconsider after sitting in the audience at a live performance. However, as Brown has commented in an interview, the need people feel to immediately jump to this conclusion shows he’s doing it right: “If no-one thought it, I imagine I’d need to change something.” Ironically, extreme cynics and extreme believers are guilty of the exact same foible: choosing to believe only the evidence which fits their theory. Spiritualists see faces in mist because they believe in ghosts; cynics see stooges in the audience because they’ve convinced themselves they are there. Frankly, this is a dull and incredibly tedious criticism. Brown’s tricks work on suggestion, manipulation and misdirection. His shows demonstrate the intricate complexity of the human brain, using our subconscious as a weird playground. Professing himself to be a cynic of the highest order, Brown’s performances are so exciting precisely because they openly twist what is real. Without giving too much away, it’s impossible not to become engrossed when Brown’s mental trickery has resulted in a seemingly physical effect upon your own body.
Better than a phoney psychic who argues genuine clairvoyance or a stage magician who simply stokes his own ego with tricks that say “aren’t I clever?”, Brown is mesmerising because he plays on something much more personal, taking something we take for granted, use un-thinkingingly every day – our own minds – and messing with them, showing them to be fallible, malleable and apparently possessed of a power we are unable to understand or control. The feeling is one of fascination, excitement and total perplexity. In a sense, this is the most genuine kind of magic: taking something we think we know and making it behave in a way we cannot possibly comprehend.
Svengali is at the Novello Theatre until August 11th. For further information or to book visit Brown’s website here.