Do you believe in free will? Yes, you answer. Well, did you choose to be born? No, you answer. So, given that this first moment of your life was determined by someone or something other than you, something other than your ‘free will’, and given that every moment from then until now has been a continuous chain of events, each choice the result of an accumulation of circumstances that have gone before, ergo you do not have free will. That, anyway, is the scientific conclusion.
In Bullet Catch writer/performer Rob Drummond, in his alter-ego William Wonder, uses illusion and psychological magic – along with a whole box of clever theatrical tricks that include storytelling and audience interaction – to investigate the big life-and-death questions at the heart of human existence: the free will conundrum; existential angst and the appeal of suicide; the meaning of happiness and how to achieve it. And this all before breakfast! (This was a 10.30am show.)
Key to the tremendous success of Bullet Catch is the clever exploration of the relationship between truth and fiction; between fantasy and reality; between choice and persuasion. Magic turns out to be both metaphor and means for this exploration. Within and around the stage action, the questions are weaved, directly or indirectly. Can we distinguish between real historical reference and a fictional theatrical story? Between scientific fact and religious belief? Who is telling the truth and who is lying? Are we choosing this or is someone choosing for us? Do we want to know how the trick is done – or do we want to hold onto the fantasy and not spoil the magic? If so, close your eyes now – and you might want to put your fingers in your ears too. There’s a big bang coming…
It all circles around an exploration of the (allegedly) true life story of magician William Henderson, who, it is said, ignored his friend Houdini’s advice – which boiled down to ‘don’t do it’ – and was subsequently shot dead on stage whilst attempting the infamous ‘bullet catch’ trick. And yes, you’ve guessed it, the climax of the show is a demonstration of this very trick. Drummond cleverly pairs a reading of Houdini’s letter with a letter allegedly from the Traverse’s health-and-safety office – whose advice is similarly ‘don’t do it’. He beguiles us with his cleverness, and seduces us into accepting that it is fine for us to watch someone shoot at him with a loaded gun.
The twist in the tale comes with the idea that Henderson’s death was not so much a failed trick as the ultimate trick of them all – a clever suicide engineered by the magician, using an innocent audience member as his stooge. Yet why would someone happy and healthy with everything to live for want to kill himself? Enter stage left the sinister spectre of existential nihilism. If free will is the ultimate illusion, then what is there left to live for? Drummond reflects on the appeal of such a suicide tactic – yet still we let him load the gun.
Do we think the gun is loaded with blanks? Or that the ever-willing audience member who has shared the stage with him for practically the whole show as a kind of magician’s assistant cum confidant cum second-actor is a plant? Or do we just trust that whatever is happening on a stage is OK because it is theatre not real life? After all, there are the theatrical trappings – the hand-painted signs and the sepia portraits; the wooden tables, big old trunk, and Crombie overcoat. This is a story, about something that maybe happened in the long-distant past, nothing to do with the here-and-now... isn’t that so?
Ultimately we realise that we never have any way of knowing what is real and what is illusion: the play becomes a metaphor for the great big conjuring trick that is our lives.
With writing as precise and penetrating as a speeding bullet, a very clever use of audience participation that both honours and usurps the traditions of theatre magic shows, and the whole seductive lure of the most infamous trick of them all, Rob Drummond’s mild-mannered William Wonder proves the age-old maxim – that it’s the quiet ones that you have to watch.