Last week I went to the theatre with a group of students. Nothing unusual in that of course. However, it was one of those occasions where my expectations were wildly off the mark. As I have said previously, it is International Arts Festival time in Hong Kong and when I book tickets for my students, I always try to book a range of performances – something to challenge, something from a world theatre perspective, some dance theatre and something to entertain. I think its important that my students understand that theatre is a ‘broad church’ and my want to book a piece that is a little ‘lighter’, shall we say, is part of encouraging life long learning.
A stunt so dangerous Houdini refused to attempt it, the Bullet Catch has claimed the lives of at least 12 illusionists, assistants and spectators since its conception in 1613. Drawing help from his daring live audience, modern-day marvel (William Wonder) presents a unique theatrical magic show featuring storytelling, mind reading, levitation, games of chance and, if you are brave enough to stay for it, the most notorious finale in show business.
You can see why I might book it. However, this description barely touches on what the piece is really about or the depth of the intellectual and visceral responses it provokes. What I actually ended up seeing was one of the most engaging pieces of theatre I have seen in a long time and one that has caused endless discussion between teaching colleagues and students from all grades. The piece plays with theatrical form in such a way that it leaves you with endless questions about what you have just witnessed. It is about illusion and reality. It is about free will, trust and connections. To use a modern idiom, it messes with your head. One critic said
it is…..painfully honest about the choices we make and the way we stare despair in the face while pretending we are OK.
It is beautifully and cleverly manipulative of the audience and dramatic tension – you are never sure what is truth, as it plays with content and form. All in all it is deeply unsettling and the better for it as a piece of contemporary theatre – not surprisingly it won a Total Theatre Award when first performed.
Bullet Catch has played in the UK, America, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia and now, Hong Kong. The critics have been almost universal in their praise and I think largely so because of the fierce intelligence that is clearly behind the theatre making. It is as much an exploration of dramatic form and how theatre ‘works’ as it is the telling of a story. It plays with your suspension of disbelief in an almost cruel way – although in hindsight and after considerable thought I am astounded at the deftness with which Drummond (as writer, performer and co-director) has done this.
A review of one of its original performances by Lyn Garnder for The Guardian gave the piece a highly praised 4 star rating:
“This isn’t magic; it’s a conversation,” says Rob Drummond in this remarkable, multilayered and utterly gripping show inspired by the infamous bullet-catch trick. It’s remarkable for several reasons, not least for the levels of tension it invokes as it heads towards a climax in which Drummond persuades a member of the audience to shoot him.
I’m giving nothing away by telling you this is a piece that plays, with swaggering confidence, with the nature of truth and illusion, invoking Harry Houdini and claiming to be inspired by the real-life case of William Henderson – apparently killed while undertaking the trick in 1912 in front of 2,000 people. Was it an accident or did something more sinister take place when a labourer with no history of violence was grabbed from the audience and invited to pull the trigger?
It is also remarkable because while it revels in sleight of hand and celebrates the magic of theatre, it is also painfully honest about the choices we make and the way we stare despair in the face while pretending we are OK.
Drummond is both measured and infinitely vulnerable and, in a way that reminds me of theatremaker Tim Crouch, he introduces an element of dangerous uncertainty into the show by inviting a member of the audience to play a major role. “It couldn’t have happened any other way,” are almost his final words, but Drummond marries form and content to prove that it’s a lie.
One of my graduating students was appalled that we were actually being asked to wait to watch another human being shot at, which was a view expressed by Sarah Hemming in her review of the show for The Financial Times. Hemming describes the magic trick itself as:
……a launch-pad for a gripping, terrifying inquiry into free will
At the very end, Drummond and his co-opted member of the audience re-enact the Bullet Catch and this is where Drummond works yet more of his real magic – that of absolute psychological (and theatrical) manipulation. We know that it is just a trick, an illusion about to be acted out in front of us – it couldn’t possibly be anything else in a risk-averse 21st Century. Yet when the audience are offered the opportunity to leave before it takes place, some do. Of course there are a number of reasons why this might be the case. Like my student, the prospect of one man holding a gun and aiming at another is just wrong on many levels. Equally, despite the fact we know that it is fiction, we cannot quite manage to suspend our disbelief and the anxiety is just too much.
I am still not clear if I have been able to give a full enough description about why I feel this piece is a unique theatrical event, but if it tours near you I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending you going to see it – even if you have to leave before the end.