The Illusionists – The experience of Magic. (Theatre Review)

The Illusionists

19 to 29 December, Sydney Opera House.

You can grab your tickets here.

It is now the stuff of legend that the Simon Painter produced 2013 The Illusionists show sold out at the Sydney Opera House before it even opened. The shows subsequent popularity has become something of a mystery for critics. At best they give light-weight reviews or at their worst ignore The Magic Show all together, leaving substantial philosophical critique for the more serious theatrical arts like theatre and classical music performance. However, there is room for a proper examination of what is ‘happening’ when we go (as it turns out, on mass) to see a Magic Show like The Illusionists. Take this revealing quote from Raymond Teller (of Penn and Teller fame):

[Y]ou experience magic as real and unreal at the same time. It’s a very, very odd form, compelling, uneasy, and rich in irony. A romantic novel can make you cry. A horror movie can make you shiver. A symphony can carry you away on an emotional storm; it can go straight to the heart or the feet. But magic goes straight to the brain; its essence is intellectual. (Stromberg 2012)

The above perspective gives the critical thinker a proper foundation upon which to make an examination of the sensory relationship between audience and magician. The purpose of The Magic Show is to give the audience the believable experience of an impossible event. This recognition has driven writers like Jason Leddington[1] to examine the experience of The Magic Show. Involved in this examination is the refusal of mythology and stereotypes such as its nebulous relationship with detested feminine arts such as witchcraft and spiritual medium practice, sleight of hand practiced by unskilled magicians and a broad opine that reduces magic performance to sideshow art better suited for children’s parties. It has been presumed by lazy critics that The Magic Show (like so much other live performance) was on the decline due to film and television. But audiences continue to be attracted to The Illusionists and therefore the need for commensurate critical analysis is rising.


For the artists who perform in The Illusionists the will to deceive is absent. Rather the drive is to create an illusion of impossibility. Kevin James’ performances are the most striking example of this methodology as he surrounds himself with children who guide the audience to a commensurate experience of the joy of discovery. This is more than a nostalgic trip to a time when cynicism was absent. Kevin James calls himself The Inventor. He intends to ignite possibility. Our desire to know how he ‘does it’ is born of a drive to ‘do it ourselves.’ Equally absent is a presumption of the possession of ‘special powers.’ Jonathan Goodwin is The Daredevil. He communicates the absence of ‘trickery’ in his set up, relying the history and traditions of his craft to give substance to his performance. Chris Cox uses comedic magic to intensify the convoluted wit of his art as The Mentalist and Jinger Leigh brings the sublime to her artistry as The Conjuress whose primary medium is beauty. The intention is to depict the impossible as though it were really happening. Not deception but an invitation to broaden an idea of the conceivable.

For the audience, what is called forth in The Illusionists, is a refusal of deception. Suspecting that you know how a magic performance is conceived is enough to ruin it. Therefore, the great Illusionist must include and then refuse the audiences suspicion prior to presentation. They must cancel the methods that might reasonably occur to you. It is for this reason magic is a process of elimination. It can only exist when every conceivable cause is properly removed. At no point do the audience believe the events are happening as presented despite how much it looks like they are, but all possible explanations have been eliminated by these great performances. Thus, the performance produces cognitive dissonance in the spectator and the natural and immediate response to such psychic dissonance is to try to recover harmony. This belief-discordant alief plunges the audience into a state with no recourse to rationalisation. We are able to experience an apparent impossibility in the absence of any resources able to explain it away. To add to our experience, The Illusionists employ prominent stage camera operators Martin Hopkins and Sebastian Milton to evoke a close-up or street style eye that is particularly effective in Jeff Hobson and Jinger Leigh’s ring performance and An Halim’s exquisite work with decks of cards. We see it, we don’t believe it, yet we can’t escape this tension.

For Jason Leddington, in his paper ‘The Experience of Magic’ the idea of an aesthetic experience involving imaginative failure calls to mind Kant’s concept of mathematical sublimity. “For Kant, to experience the world as beautiful is to experience it as intelligible which means that the experience of beauty is an experience of the harmony of the world with our cognitive faculties… Similarly, according to Kant, the experi-ence of the mathematically sublime occurs when you encounter something that … makes no sense to your senses. The sub-lime object overwhelms the imagination, which fails in its attempt to make the object available for empirical cognition. This cognitive failure is the negative moment in the experience of the math-ematically sublime. Critically, however, for Kant, a positive moment follows: unable to cognize the object empirically, you grasp it by means of an idea of reason; in so doing, you experience the supe-riority of your rational self over your merely ani-mal, empirical nature. Arguably, the experience of magic has a similar structure: there is a moment of cognitive failure that is nevertheless “contained” by the knowledge that “it’s just a trick.” In this respect, despite being totally baffled, the spectator remains master over the illusion.”[2]

For The Illusionists, all of this is a well examined journey into a corner of the experience of being human. Toying with our abilities to master our five senses and make rational observations about our being in the world can only be good for us. The grandeur and splendor of The Sydney Opera House is a fitting location for such magnificence. Myself and my partner were excitedly surprised by how much we loved our evening, especially our excited “how do they do it?” conversation post show. For art, the discussions are always philosophical, and The Illusionists is no exception. Still, for philosophy the drive is to gain wisdom and knowledge. For those who love and seek magic (and I may be a convert) The Illusionists is a deep engagement with the joy of incredulity for its own sake. Even with all its tensions, I found this a joyful experience, and am left with my own mystery as to why.

Take the whole family to this show.

[1] The Experience of Magic, Jason Leddington, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 74:3 Summer 2016 C2016 The American Society for Aesthetics

[2] The Experience of Magic, Jason Leddington. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 74:3 Summer 2016C2016 The American Society for Aesthetics, Page 260.