One of my favorite performers, Derren Brown, is finishing up a Broadway run of his stage show SECRET at the Cort Theater on 48th Street in Manhattan at the end of the month. It’s in essence the same show that he performed a year or two back at the Atlantic downtown, but in a somewhat larger venue. Having experienced it, it’s well worth the time and the money to attend if you happen to be in the City during that time period. But as Derren asks that no specifics about the show apart from its broad premise be revealed by theater-goers, this isn’t truly going to be a review.
For those who are unfamiliar, Derren Brown is a psychological illusionist, a mentalist. In essence, he reads minds and incepts thoughts and uses those abilities to bring off a series of miraculous and gobsmacking feats of telepathy. What he does has its basis in traditional stage magic but he brings both a wonderful sense of personal performance (for virtually all of the show, there are no sets and limited props–it’s simply Derren standing there on an otherwise empty stage) and an involving sense of audience participation. He also comes at all of this with a particular point of view: he’s very up front about the fact that what he’s doing relies on trickery, and that he possesses no extraordinary abilities for all that it will seem at certain points as though he does. Rather, his narrative is all about how we go about our daily lives editing te input from the world around us into stories that help us to make sense of it all, and he uses the audience’s natural tendency towards such self-editing to control what they see and how they see it.
I first became aware of Derren Brown a decade or so ago, when Syfy began airing a six-episode compilation of his first UK television series Mind Control. From there, I sought out everything else that was available on the man–while he’s still relatively unknown in the United States, he’s a well-recognized figure in the UK where he resides, so there was plenty of material to draw from. He had gained some notoriety from a television special in which he played Russian Roulette live–in recent years, his work has moved away from such directly outlandish stunts into more nuanced works that bring his skills to bear on the lives of ordinary people, giving them extraordinary experiences, both good and bad.
This trend began in 2006 with The Heist in which Brown created an immersive Truman Show-like environment over a period of days in order to condition four separate people to attempt to rob an armored car. It was mesmerizing television. This was followed up with the much more benign Hero At 30,000 Feet in which Brown used those selfsame skills to inspire an unconfident and withdrawn man into volunteering for an act of heroism: landing an aircraft whose pilot had been stricken. From there, he expanded this repertoire: he created a simulated zombie apocalypse to help show a man the value of the life he had, turned a group of pensioners into an Ocean’s 11-style crew to undertake the theft of a painting from an art exhibition, and devised a scenario to test the question of whether an upstanding individual could be coerced by circumstances into pushing another person off a rooftop to their death. While I enjoy Derren’s stage mentalism and straightforward showmanship, it’s these productions that I enjoy the most of his work.
From the start, Brown has been emphatic that he uses neither actors nor stooges (plants) in his productions, and I take him at his word. Rather, he claims to achieve all of his results through a mix of magic (traditional stage magic, not actual sorcery), suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship. And this is all true. His real skill is in leading you to think that he’s doing one thing (or, in some instances, two things) when in reality he is getting is result in an entirely different manner. But he tells you that he’s going to lie to you, so it’s all a part of the sport. Having seen SECRET three times between its run at the Atlantic and its current engagement at the Cort, what is perhaps most amazing is the manner in which he is able to make events that happen every night appear to be spontaneous and unrehearsed.
Three of Derren’s specials are available on Netflix right now, including his latest, Sacrifice, in which he connives to make a man opposed to illegal immigration take a bullet for an undocumented worker. He’s also got a page set up on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/user/OfficialDerren/videos where a repository of his past work can be found. It’s a dangerous rabbit hole to fall down, let me warn you, as it can be both mystifying and addictive, and you’ll find yourself spending hours watching Derren manipulate people in the most outlandish of ways.