IN 2013, Derren Brown brought his show “Infamous” to the West End’s Palace Theatre, and I interviewed him at the time for the SUNDAY EXPRESS, republished below. Now he’s back at the same theatre again, appearing in “Miracle”, through January 16, before resuming a national tour. Full tour dates are here: http://derrenbrown.co.uk/on-stage/
It is now ten years since Derren Brown made his West End debut with his first stage show at the Palace Theatre, and now he is back at the same address with his latest one show called Infamous. In between then and now, there have been four other West End runs, including of two shows that won him the Olivier Award for Best Entertainment in 2006 and 2012.
But if he has now come full circle to the same stage where he started out, Derren’s act today is very different to any he has presented before. “The feeling we had at the beginning was to create the tone of an acoustic set, like if you went to see a band that’s much less showy.”
He is sipping a mint tea in a Soho patisserie near the theatre that he likes to relax in before a show, and he’s far less showy in person than onstage, too. He is unfailingly modest, thoughtful and courteous throughout, but most of all insightful into the craft and discipline as well as the art of what makes him one of the most unique and popular stage and television entertainers in Britain today.
He never likes to tread water or recycle old shows. Having brought six brand-new shows to the West End in ten years now, he says, “Obviously if you’re a comedian, you’re used to coming up with a different show maybe every couple of years, but normally for a magician, you have your act for the whole of your life really! I remember at the beginning when we set out to do the second show thinking, ‘Oh God, I’ve got to come up with a whole new one now.’ But now I just find it is such a treat – the whole process of writing it, rehearsing it every couple of years is all part of the fun.”
And live performance is, above all, exciting.
“There’s the adrenalin of doing it, which there isn’t much of when you’re working on TV. But I do try to come up with ideas that are fun and adrenalin-filled to do on TV as much as I can – the Apocalypse TV special I did last year, in which we were ending the world for someone who had no idea what he was part of, was like that. When we began shooting, he had no idea of the huge, huge experience he was about to have.” But it was also about a larger purpose: “In order to teach him about valuing what he has, we took everything away.” Wasn’t it cruel? “Maybe, but it was very carefully plotted and the end result was so positive for him and at a much deeper level than the darkness or cruelty it took to get there.”
In the same way, he hopes to reach out to theatre audiences on a personal level. He’s doing so in this show by dealing with some of his own personal issues, like coming out as a gay man (relatively late – he only did so when he was 31, 11 years ago) and being bullied at school. Not that it’s a kind of replacement for therapy: “It doesn’t feel like therapy to me, but if you’re well known and have had a struggle of some sort, it’s good if there’s something people can take something from it. Not that I’ve had much of a struggle in the grand scheme of things, but people have written me letters afterwards, and it’s really nice to find that you’re a role model for them. I always find that magic is such a childish urge – the quickest route to impressing people is doing a trick, so something like that means a lot to me. It’s not silly me just showing off.”
He also wants to keep taking bigger risks. “Each time I’ve done a new show, I’ve been a bit braver in terms of sheer technique I’ve been able to use. There are always sections of my shows when suddenly I need to get the whole audience involved. When I throw it out there now, I am relying on the fact that because of the prestige I have, it heightens their suggestibility, and enough people are there now who will pick up on what I do for it to happen a lot quicker.”
But aren’t the shows high-risk strategies? What if they don’t actually work tonight? “Every night I think it is going to fail – apart from the fact that deep down I know it won’t, because it has worked every other night!” But small things can and do go wrong from time to time, and he tries not to be too hard on himself if they do: “It’s an effort not to drive myself too mad about it, as it’s the sort of thing that I’ll be up all night about if I do. There are so many things about touring and doing a show that become personal little metaphors for life – if there’s a mistake, once a show is done I can’t go back and make it better.”
But there’s another key element to the show of surprise that he has to conscript his nightly audience – and any journalists present – into honouring by not sharing what happens in it with others. “It would be a very different experience if you knew what was coming, let alone the danger of turning things into an expectation that wasn’t the same. The fun of it is that it’s a bit like it’s a play for two actors, but the other person doesn’t know the script but you’ve still got to make it work as a play. There’s a real sense about magic, as opposed to a play or other kinds of theatre, that it happens entirely in the heads of the audience. You could present a one-man play and have bits that potentially go above their heads, but that doesn’t mean that the play has failed. But for anything rooted in magic, it does fail if they don’t get it. It’s an ongoing experience that I’m manipulating and working with at every moment, so surprise and confusion are part of the tool set I have. Aside from the pure level of enjoyment they get, it’s important to me that people don’t know what’s coming from a technical point of view.”
And the enjoyment is mutual. “I wouldn’t ever want to stop performing live, though I could happily stop the TV. When television comes up, my heart always sinks a little bit before I can get my head around it.” Right now, he is preparing for a couple of specials to be broadcast at the end of year. But first, there’s the rest of the West End run to finish, with another UK tour to follow next year. “It always amazes me how much of a joy this is.”