All Kinds of Magic

A small feather flutters from Robert Jägerhorn’s hands. I think he has just set free a caged bird I’ve seen him draw on a deck of playing cards with a sharpie just seconds before. I can’t be too sure though, because the moment is gone. All I’m left with is a content feeling of awe somewhere in the fuzzy bird-related area in my chest I didn’t know existed. Together with a group of other visitors I’m huddled around the Finnish magician who is one of the performers at the Edinburgh International Magic Festival. We’re between shows and Robert’s bird trick felt like a little precious gift of kindness. Well, kindness, and I think he was trying to get one of the women to let him use the foosball table in the Summerhall courtyard. Hey, no one ever said magicians were selfless.

In a month’s time there will be an embarrassment of theatrical riches in the Summerhall venues with the likes of Daniel Kitson, Caroline Horton and Chris Thorpe presenting new work alongside many other exciting debut performers. Successful production houses such as Paines Plough and Theatre Royal Plymouth will also present their programme here.

Now, in July, it is much quieter. There’s a lone donut stand in one corner of the yard, a sparsely-stocked container popup magic shop in the other. But without the daunting feeling of having to rush off to another part of town to catch the next show I am much more open to submerge myself into the world that’s on offer here. As I sip my G&T from the distillery at the back of the pub I see young people with decks of cards in their hands practising acrobatic shuffling routines they must have picked up during one of the many workshops. There is a bed in the yard too. It’s not exactly deconstructing Tracey Emin but it makes me smile. It is full of flowers and playing cards and when I circle it its surface changes colour. Performance festivals are the best kind of out-of-time experiences, normal life stops somehow, and you are submerged in a niche world. Here, at the Magic Festival, that world is one of optical illusions, card tricks and vanishing lemons.

Because I decided that three days would be sufficient for my first proper magic binge I missed out on a few highlights such as the gala show and a mysterious tour through Lauriston castle. As I make my way to the first show I see more floral arrangements wound around pillars and staircases, as if a flower child from a wedding has been a bit overenthusiastic and draped everything into a blossoming cloak. You can still see the drab corridors and gently decaying corners of the building underneath it all. Summerhall used to be a veterinary school and because the building has mostly been kept intact, the shows take place where students used to slave away over the finer points of horse anatomy. There is a mix of class rooms, raked lecture style halls and there is even a stunning, old wood-panelled operating theatre. Now everything in Summerhall seems to be lit up a tad more with the excitement of the punters and the mischievous smiles of the magicians as they pass through theses corridors.

Around the building there are various photographic works by Barbara Scerbo titled Illusion in which mirror images make massive picture frames look like portals that can hide a slice of reality. They perfectly illustrate the delicate crossings of reality and imagination, expectation and surprise I’ve come here for. Kevin McMahon, organiser of the festival, has the mission to bring magic to a wide range of audiences. At the eight day long festival there is a variety of magic genres and types of events on offer from dinner shows, intimate ten minute close-up gigs to fascinating lecture-style performances and workshops for young people and adults.

McMahon is a scientist turned performer who became a magician ten years ago when he was part of the Channel Four programme Faking It in which people were trained to be well versed in a profession that couldn’t be more different from their real one. However, he has not completely left his roots behind and in his show Quantum Magic he connects scientific principles with magic tricks. It’s a simple conceit, sleight of hand routines and the creative use of prop-y boxes are combined with a more high concept idea. McMahon claims that magic and science are conceived to be diametrically opposed and that he will now blur that distinction, or make it more woolly at least.

The misappropriation of scientific concepts such as Schrödinger’s cat in pop culture usually irks me because often mindless gags win over actual interesting science. McMahon’s show sometimes has a slight whiff of that but his charming patter is so fast paced and witty that it never really descends into completely frothy territory and I’m definitely won back over at the mention of Zombie Cats. The lack of raked seating is a let down so I completely miss an apparently very amusing routine with a bowling ball and few other nuances and gags, mainly involving limes. Towards the end, McMahon enters into his frantic zone – think less nutty professor more rushed performer – to wrap it all up. Quantum Magic is not treading new terrain but the gags and antics land well with the audience and McMahon is a truly likeable performer.

An even more traditional contribution to the ‘man standing in front of an audience doing tricks while telling half-truths and making quips’ genre is Paul Wilson’s Intimate Magic. A seasoned performer, Wilson begins by telling a couple of heart-warming anecdotes about the people he met when he first started out as a magician and then goes on to share some of the tricks he has learned from them. He takes great joy in demonstrating the stubbornness of a little brown ball that keeps reappearing in a small china cup. Sadly, Wilson abandons that strong narrative pull half way through the show. Although he’s a very accomplished sleight of hand performer who is great at misdirecting the audience’s focus, it all feels too dated for my taste.

For example, Wilson falls into the convenient trap of using a female volunteer in the audience as set dressing for a good chunk of the show. The woman is only ever allowed to examine props or be at the receiving end of innuendos. In truly archaic gender stereotyping fashion he chooses a man to join him on stage when it comes to a big gambling segment to be an actual conversation partner. This is after all the bit about money and who else could possibly be in control of that? Despite a great crescendo finish the pea and three shells trick is overly long but Wilson does have great comedic timing. His ramshackle tour through his favourite tricks and stories is certainly entertaining as a whole.

Both of these shows concern themselves a fair bit with the mechanics of magic, drawing attention to some of the principles that magicians resort to when constructing their routines but of course stopping short of revealing the whole picture. This made sense with McMahon’s piece as it intentionally tried to walk that line. But when Wilson announces before one of his big set pieces that all there is to it is a bit of maths then little wonder remains and it feels as if I’ve just attended half a GCSE maths lesson.

It’s my second day at the festival and I’m looking for the Red Theatre and a volunteer with a warm smile and a purple T-Shirt ushers me around another corner. The festival seems to run almost entirely on these volunteers’ warmth and enthusiasm. When I find the space I’m there to catch a stylistically more adventurous show. Benjamin Rummens from the company Cirque-Cirqulaire has said that the piece Working Class presents a new magic movement, something that he calls ‘Magie Nouvelle’, but that is essentially sad clownery with a few tricks thrown in. The show tells the story of a young man during different times in his life. He starts out as a janitor cleaning desks, chairs and shelves and as he does so he has increasingly magical and comical encounters with the lifeless objects in the office. In a picture frame which he always carries with him there is the subject of his affection, the woman he loves. Throughout the years he climbs up the professional ladder more and more and the urge for financial gain takes over. As he struggles through an identity crisis he appears to find some solace in playful little magic routines with money bills, ropes or colour-changing tissues. But who are these tricks performed for? Who do they speak to? Because it is completely wordless and lacks audience interaction Working Class feels as if its performed behind an emotionally impenetrable screen. This is problematic for a show that talks about the heights and lows of love and how professional aspiration interferes with personal fulfilment. Although I found the show ultimately to be lacking a continuously engaging strand it was a thoughtfully crafted experiment in how to gently combine narrative elements with magic tricks.

I’m a massive fan of monsters and horror films and was ridiculously excited to see Luke Eaton’s The Late Night Horror Magic Show. In an evening that will forever teach me not to bring any high expectations into any performance space ever again, I got to see something which reminded me more of an American college hazing ritual than a magic show. Instead of spooky tricks and goose bumps there was insipid gross-out humour that’s better suited for the lads in the pub than anyone hoping for subtle thrills and scary stories.

After nailing a card into his nose and what I’m certain counts as amusing audience banter in some places, Eaton’s show really only offers two bigger pieces worth mentioning. One of those Eaton hands over to Kevin McMahon as a guest performer who is great at reading the room and who goes on to perform an ad-hoc operation in front of our eyes in search of a ring. When he rummages around in the guts of the puzzled-looking volunteer and blood squirts around the make-shift operating table it’s not for the squeamish but it is a great payoff for a scary anecdote.

When Eaton comes back he lets someone pick a card and then insists on having a truly ‘mixed’ deck before making it reappear. Not only does he then ask a woman to put the cards through a shredder. He also whacks the shredded pieces into a mixer with a swig of milk and then gulps down the whole disgusting lot, heaving as he does so. As he takes excruciatingly long to regurgitate the card I have to admit that I grow more and more intrigued by the moronic commitment to the feeble pun.

Not averse to the odd misogynist gag or asking another woman down onto the stage by saying that he needs someone who is less attractive than the previous one, Eaton presses all the wrong buttons. This sweating, bare-chested (yes, really) man who has just vomited up a playing card insists on hugging his female volunteers like it’s his prize money for being the most astounding specimen in the magical world. His cheeky smile is not even close to being winning enough to let the lack of humility and wit slide. But then, it seemed most of the audience seemed to have fun so clearly other people enjoy different ‘gifts of magic’ than I do.

On the complete opposite side of the obnoxious spectrum is Morgan & West’s Utterly Spiffing Spectacular Show For Kids (and Childish Grown-Ups). This time-traveling Victorian double act delivers an utterly charming and good-natured sugary rush of slapstick, wordplay and intelligently framed magic. The agreeable Morgan has to keep his grumpy colleague West a bit in check. Although they are performing for children, West really has got no time for these tiny, loud humans. His attitude, somewhere between prankster and villain, is perfected by a tad of delicious rudeness. From the word ‘go’ it’s an incessant flow of beautifully inventive moments that are both silly and surprising. Some wonderfully self-aware twists on the cups and balls and bullet catch routines make clear that a lot of the piece is centred around taking the mickey out of magic stereotypes and kids performers in general. My favourite was around the use of the word ‘fair’ and how far you can actually trust a magician. Whenever I hear a magician say that they are mixing the cards very ‘fairly indeed’ I can tell that something fishy is going on and that I’m about to be tricked. These two have constructed a whole segment around magicians intentionally dazzling their audiences with words in which West keeps pouring water into cups ‘very fairly’ and then asks his audience where the water is. As he keeps changing the rules of what he actually meant when he referred to a specific cup Morgan keeps interfering to reinstate the proper rules. When you think that the trick can’t possibly be taken any further, it is finished off with a lovely flourish.

In addition to their knowing twists on familiar routines, Morgan & West are the masters of malapropisms. As they gurgle out puns, similar sounding words and grammar jokes their hands never seem to stop producing silly objects or moving hats and sponge balls around. It’s all very joyful and innocent and pitched just right.

When I finally make it to Robert Jägerhorn’s show on the last day of my Edinburgh stint I’m already a bit magic-ed out and I start to wonder how many times you can see a playing card disappear and reappear without becoming a bit tetchy. Luckily, I wasn’t about to find out because Jägerhorn’s show is one of the less conventional pieces at the festival. In Waiting for Hitchcock he slips into the role of a clumsy projectionist who is about to show the audience a long-lost Hitchcock film. When the projector breaks down he decides that he has to fill the waiting time until the technician comes to fix it. Inventiveness, slapstick moves and a lot of awkward European charm come together in this master class in whimsical storytelling. As he talks about our changed ways of consuming stories through mimicking channel surfing or producing popcorn from a previously empty bag, Jägerhorn is very deft with his magical moves. An astonishing amount of precision and work has gone into the set and none of the props look like they’re ready-made. This is most apparent in a slapstick routine with a clarinet and an unwieldy music stand and a love story told entirely through newspaper titles.

There are a couple of moments where it shows that English is not Robert’s first language and he rushes through some of the carefully set up moments. His stab at chapeaugraphy, the skilful manipulation of a felt disk to create different styles of hat shapes, also did not quite fit in with the rest of the piece but still was sufficiently silly.

The show’s very own MacGuffin, that eluding film viewing experience, dangles over the whole spectacle as a desirous spark never to be consumed. The climax, the retelling of the silent film spy drama, turns into a breathless chase between baddies, femme fatales and even more silly head gear worthy of the master of suspense.

After his show, Robert asks me whether I think magic can create emotions other than wonder or surprise. Like with any other performance art it all depends on what expectations and experiences I bring with me when seeing a magic show. I always felt there were a couple of hindrances to completely immerse myself into a magic performance. First, there’s the general perception of magicians as a very particular breed of performers who are only out to trick me and make me look a little bit silly in front of the others.

By opening up a more inclusive space where performers of all sorts of genres, visitors and magic apprentices can mingle, the Edinburgh Magic Festival does its bid to haul magic further into the consciousness of audiences but also to work against some of that alienation.

And then, and probably more importantly, there’s that urge of wanting to disenchant and debunk what I’ve just seen but know can’t have happened. The knowledge gap between what the performer knows is going on and what the audience actually sees is from where the magician draws his strength and mystery. Jim Steinmeyer, who created David Copperfield’s famous Vanishing Statue of Liberty effect said that “magicians guard an empty safe”. I think again of McMahon’s and Wilson’s routines and wonder if making me think too much about the mechanics was where some of the wondrous momentum got lost.

It’s not that I shouldn’t be able to guess how the tricks are done, it’s that I shouldn’t care about it because I’m so bound up in what that trick is doing to me as I see it happening. The most magical moment in Edinburgh were those where I never felt the urge to find out and which let me revel in the mystery or the subtlety of the storytelling. If someone creates a very special moment I feel wonder, yes, but also gratitude.