I decided I had to see Angier's new illusion for myself, and when I heard at the end of October that he was starting a two-week residence at the Hackney Empire I quietly bought myself a ticket for the stalls. The Empire is a deep, narrow theatre, with long constricted aisles and an auditorium kept fairly well in the dark throughout the performance, so it exactly suited my purposes. My seat had a good view of the stage, but I was not so close that Angier was likely to spot me there.
I took no exception to the main part of his performance, in which he competently performed illusions from the standard magical repertoire. His style was good, his patter amusing, his assistant beautiful, and his showmanship above average. He was dressed in a well-made evening suit, and his hair was smartly brilliantined to a high gloss. It was during this part of his act, though, that I first observed the wasting that was affecting his face, and saw other clues that suggested an unwell state. He moved stiffly, and several times favoured his left arm as if it were weaker than the other.
Finally, after an admittedly amusing routine that involved a message written by a member of the audience appearing inside a sealed envelope, Angier came to the closing illusion. He began with a serious speech, which I scribbled down quickly into a notebook. Here is what he said:
Ladies and Gentlemen! As the new century moves apace we see around us on every side the miracles of science. These wonders multiply almost every day. By the end of the new century, which few here tonight shall live to see, what marvels will prevail? Men might fly, men might speak across oceans, men might travel across the firmament. Yet no miracle which science may produce can compare with the greatest wonders of all… the human mind and the human body.
Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, I will attempt a magical feat that brings together the wonders of science and the wonders of the human mind. No other stage performer in the world can reproduce what you are about to witness for yourself!With this he raised his good arm theatrically, and the curtains were swept apart. There, waiting in the limelight, was the apparatus I had come to see.
commentary: The Prestige – as in the 2006 Christopher Nolan film featuring Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman – is one of my favourites: wonderfully eerie and clever and mystifying, and despite its surprises and revelations, a film you can watch over and over again.
There are differences between book and film, and the book has a strange framing device in modern times – it is not really resolved, and I think Nolan did well to ditch it. But the book is just as fascinating and strange as the film. Both tell the story of competing magicians around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The two men get caught up in a ridiculous escalating war (given a better motive in the film) and at the heart of their rivalry is their wish to perform a Transported Man illusion: one where a person is visible at one moment, then re-appears somewhere else completely. They go about achieving this in quite different ways. To say more would be to spoiler.
It is clear that the author is very knowledgeable about the world of magicians, the illusions they perform and the historical era – and also that he has an amazing imagination: the story is intricate and powerful and also wide-ranging and very very clever.
Both film and book excel at creating an atmosphere, and tell their complex stories without too much confusion. I would highly recommend both…
The posters are from the Billy Rose collection at the NYPL.
Another great magician book is Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold, on the blog a while back.
And of course Elly Griffiths’ second series (after Ruth Galloway) features illusionist Max Mephisto – see for example Zig Zag Girl, also with excellent magician pictures on the blogpost.