Monday, 9 May 2011

Svengali, or the Art of Creating Tension

I went to see Derren Brown's new stage show Svengali on Saturday in its closing night at the Edinburgh Playhouse. Even without Derren's very polite request to not reveal the details of the show to anyone I would never reveal the end of a show or story, particularily online (if you don't believe me ask my Mum if I've told her how Harry Potter ends yet). That's not about to change, so if you're here looking for spoilers then try someone else. What I am going to discuss is the similarities between that art of the performer and that of the writer, and a few observations that I made on creating nd maintaining tension in an unruly audience.

First, a bit of background from his website incase you haven't heard of Derren Brown.

"Dubbed a ‘psychological illusionist’ by the Press, Derren Brown is a performer who combines magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship in order to seemingly predict and control human behaviour, as well as performing mind-bending feats of mentalism.
For the past ten years Derren has created TV and stage performances that have stunned audiences, debunked the paranormal and encouraged many to improve and enhance their own mental abilities. His first show appeared in 2000, Derren Brown: Mind Control, and followed with Trick of the Mind, Trick or Treat and a series of Specials including the controversial Russian Roulette and the hugely popular Events."

Svengali was not as good as Enigma which we went to see  couple of years ago, and while this was in part due to the big revel at the end of Enigma simply being more impressive than the new show, it was also largely due to the audience at the production of Svengali that I went to.

Again, I'm not giving away any spoilers but there was one part of the show which should have tapped into one of my deepest childhood fears and, quite frankly I should have been scared witless. A friend of mine went to see the show first and althought she also didn't reveal the content of the show, she mentioned that she was writing to Derren Brown to complain about the nightmares the show had given her. I'm not certain, but I'm guessing that it'd have been about the same part of the show.

The second half of the show generally takes on a more serious note and this time was no different, with derren changed out of a lounge suit into the traditional evening suit with tails of the gentelman magician. The main attraction was covered with a cloth and Derren began to explain how it came to be on stage in the show. After building up a picture of the object and it's murcky past, the cloth was removed and the object was revealed. I should have screamed. I should have at least jumped in my seat, or felt uncomfortable. It should have been so creepy that I wanted to leave the theatre. Thinking about it now gives me shivers.

What actually happened was that some of the audience, on seeing the object, laughed. From that moment on all tension hissed out of the show and it seemed to go downhill from there. It happened a few times that when Derren attempted to build some tension with the audience, he produced laughter and cat calls instead.

Comedy is great in performing and in writing. I often use little bursts of comedy to ligghten the mood od my academic papers and bring ease both to myself and my audience. Derren Brown, and many other performers, are no different and he is very funny and entertaining. This, however is only a good tool when it is weilded by the creator. If your work is patchy and melodramatic then your reader will pick up on that. How often have you gone to a film and sat through it with most of the audience laughing in all the wrong places? It happend when we loose control of our writing and stop assesing it with a critical eye. Things which work well on a small scale become characturised when repeated too often. Other times the tension is lacking from the start and we don't build up pace and momentum and we quickly loose the reader or audience.

Personally, I don't think that's what happened at Svengali. I think the audience perhaps had too much to drink during the interval (and perhaps before the show as well). It was a real shame and I would have rather been tense and on edge for the performance than deflated by and annoyed at the audience. It just goes to show that once you put it out there, it's no longer your baby and your not in control of it anymore.


  1. Tension is ridiculously complicated to keep, but once you've got it, it's absolutely, deliciously amazing.

    <3 Gina Blechman

  2. Absolutely Gina! With live performances it's hit or miss, al least with writing you can refine until you get it right.