Illusionist Derren Brown set to play mind games with Irish audiences

Ahead of his Irish tour Jenny Lee catches up with illusionist Derren Brown. He talks about the important things in his life, looks back upon a very expensive visit to Belfast and reveals how the FBI once enquired about his services

Illusionist Derren Brown brings his Showman tour to Dublin, Belfast and Derry

DON'T think your mind is playing tricks this April if you happened to spot popular illusionist Derren Brown in your local coffee shop or tourist attraction.

The mentalist will be bringing his Showman tour to Dublin, Belfast and Derry, which he will visit for the first time, and is keen to explore the cities in his spare time.

"I love touring. I get my days to myself to do what I like and in the evening I become a very charismatic version of myself," he tells me.

"When I get to a city I like to find a decent coffee shop to hang out in and do some writing. Belfast is particularly good for photography and food. Last time I visited the Titanic museum, which was incredible."

Brown (51), who admits "Ireland is the highlight" of his eight-month long tour, is looking forward to-engaging with local audiences here.

"I enjoy cities because there is a strong sense of community because generations after generations have grown up there. That makes for a great audience because they have an energy which is different."

Audience participation is always a huge part of Brown's shows and during his Irish visit he will be careful to pay extra attention to our accents, after losing £5,000 when a trick went badly wrong during a show at Belfast's Waterfront Hall.

"I had a box and people had to guess if there was £500 or £5,000 in it. Between how far away the person was, the acoustics and it being my first night in Belfast, I hadn't quite tuned into the accent and I misunderstood what the guy said. So I did my bit wrong and the guy got to keep the money. That was a really expensive show," he laughs.

Brown describes Showman as his "most personal theatrical show to date", though he isn't willing to share too many details.

"It is a bit shrouded in secrecy. I swear the audience to secrecy every night and amazingly people do go along with that," beams Brown.

"The show is about remembering what's important. Like how the very things that we find most isolating in life - our fears and difficulties - actually connect us. Framed with what I think will be some extraordinary demonstrations of my voodoo."

It may appear like the perfect post-lockdown show; however, Brown actually penned it long before Covid existed and was due to perform it on the first day of lockdown in March 2020.

At the beginning of the pandemic Brown was even accused by a number of people on social media of creating Covid.

"Lockdown became a very literal play out of our theme as we were forced to isolate and not connect with the things we should be.

"So that has remained at its heart – it has a gentle thread about how we share our human difficulties, and the value of remembering what's important," adds Brown, hoping that audiences, as well as being entertained, will take away a sense of empathy towards each other.

Speaking to Brown via telephone he was charming, humble, shy and quite normal - far from the outgoing showman we see on stage and television.

He admits that he likes to shy away from the limelight and even his television shows in recent years have put the spotlight on the participants, rather than himself.

Reflecting his inner introvert, he uses a frisbee as a means of selecting participants in his live shows, giving them the chance to forgo the opportunity if they so desire, rather than forcing them on stage.

"If it lands on your lap and you don't want to come up it's quite easy to throw it on. I do it like that because I personally hated being dragged up on stage."

I ask Brown if he's been hypnotised himself in the past? "I'm not very responsive to it," he responds.

"This is not really a hypnotic show - it's one of an arsenal of tools that I use," says Brown, who over the years has reinvented himself and changed how he's referred to himself.

Introduced to magic and hypnosis whilst studying Law and German at Bristol University, Brown forewent an international legal career to concentrate on his craft.

His big break came in 1999 when he was asked by Channel 4 to put a television show together.

Mind Control, which saw him deploy psychology, subliminal messaging and sleight of hand to deceive, amaze, con, rob and beguile members of the public, proved an immediate success.

Whether seen as a mentalist, magician, hypnotist, psychological illusionist or king of manipulation, Brown's ability to inspire suggestibility sets him apart.

His television shows are often controversial. Heist conditioned a group of middle managers to stage an armed robbery, whilst Pushed to the Edge (currently showing on Netflix as The Push) demonstrated how ordinary people can be engineered to commit murder.

Brown argues that his television shows during the past decade have focused on empowering people to the extreme.

I ask him if he ever worries he's gone too far?

"No. I don't come to it in terms of what we are going to do to people. They are meticulously planned out and the people involved are so carefully selected and well taken care of. Even if it is a dark journey they are going through, there's always a good reason for it, and a positive life-changing ending which makes the whole thing worth it."

The thing that does continually surprise him, however, is how reliably the people follow the "tracks I lay down for them".

"It's a very odd feeling when you have this idea that you dream up in your front room and write on a piece of paper and then you witness this actual emotional creature playing that scenario out and it shaping them.

"Like the guy in Apocalypse who believed civilisation had been wiped out. It was such an ambitious and emotional journey for us all."

I suggest that perhaps he could work some psychological manipulation on our politicians and get the Stormont government up and running again.

"I wish. Life would be a lot simpler if I could," laughs Brown, who has been approached in the past by a number of high profile organisations.

"I've been asked by the police and the FBI if I could come and train them. I would have thought they would have been a bit more discreet about it."

Brown is currently writing a book for magicians. "It's more about performance than about tricks," says the Londoner, whose most recent book A Book of Secrets: Finding Comfort in a Complex World could be described as an extension of Showman.

"I'm interested in the opposite of the American mantra of believing in yourself and setting your goals - I don't think that is a helpful way of living. It is our reaction to events that causes distress, not the events themselves."

Brown is also a talented artist, with originals of his celebrity caricatures selling in excess of £15,000.

He admits that whilst he increasingly enjoys writing and painting and hopes to "continue touring", he is "less interested in TV".

Brown is also enjoying being "behind the scenes" in a number of projects, including co-developing a new stage adaptation of HG Wells's science fiction novel The Invisible Man.

Derren Brown – Showman will take place at the Gaiety, Dublin from April 12-16, the Grand Opera House, Belfast from April 19-23 and the Millennium Forum, Derry from April 26-30.

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