Theatre

Relying on more than sleight of hand and psychological manipulation, mentalist Scott Silven elicits wonder and delight from his audiences by connecting them through his performances. By Alison Croggon.

Mentalist Scott Silven

Scottish illusionist, mentalist and performance artist Scott Silven.
Credit: JEFF SMITH

Scott Silven tells us that his favourite time of day is dusk, when the light is neither one thing nor another. In this liminal hour, he says, the mind lets down its barriers, and we become more receptive to each other and to the world.

It’s when he usually chooses to perform his show Wonders (often called Wonders at Dusk), which is currently playing at the Famous Spiegeltent as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. At the Illusionist’s Table – an intimate, upmarket version for 24 people, with a three-course dinner – takes place at night in the tenebrous rooms of Chapter House in Flinders Lane, the sense of ambiguity provided by the chiaroscuro of candlelight.

Silven is a mentalist, a branch of the magic business that eschews theatrical trickery: here are no secret panels hiding rabbits or handkerchiefs, no spectacular disappearances, such as when David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty vanish in 1983. Mentalists, or illusionists, became very popular in the 19th century, in the age of psychics, spiritualists and mediums, but their ancestry can be traced back to the early Renaissance. Some even point to the ancient Greeks, with their prodigious feats of memory and haruspication.

The mentalist presents himself – it is usually a him, although there are a few female mentalists – as someone with either supernatural or extraordinary natural talents of perception: they can read minds, or hypnotise or otherwise manipulate audience members to do their bidding. Famous contemporary mentalists such as Derren Brown claim they have highly honed skills, employing psychological suggestion or reading body language.

One of the earliest mentions of this kind of act is from the 16th century. Girolamo Scoto, an Italian magician who performed for Archduke Ferdinand II, Regent of the Tyrol, in 1572, was described as a clever manipulator of cards and a capable telepathist and mentalist. When I walked out of Wonders, I quipped that Silven would once have been burnt at the stake. There’s many a truth hidden in a joke: that keen witchburner James I had some harsh words for Scoto in his Daemonologie in 1597:

“… he will learne them manie juglarie trickes at Cardes, dice, & such like, to deceive mennes senses thereby: and such innumerable false practicques; which are proven by over-manie in this age: As they who ar acquainted with that Italian called Scoto yet living, can reporte. And yet are all these thinges but deluding of the senses, and no waies true in substance …”

James I was, of course, James VI of Scotland, and it seems only right that there’s a strong Scottish flavour to both evenings. Silven grew up in Hamilton in the Scottish lowlands and fell into his vocation as a child via a magic shop in Glasgow, studying performance at the University of Edinburgh before deciding to perform full-time. His childhood – and nostalgia itself – plays a large part in his performances.

My first experience of Silven’s charmingly unnerving art – which also happened to be my first experience of a mentalist – was At the Illusionist’s Table. At $399 a ticket, it’s not a cheap night out, but by the end I believed it was worth every cent (and yes, the meal – provided by Sofitel – is very good). All 24 of us were gathered in the foyer for sparkling wine before being led into the atmospheric vaulted dining room, with a long table decorated with floral arrangements, linen and silverware.

Once we were seated Silven entered, greeting us all personally. He’s a handsome, impeccably tailored young man with impressive hair, who looks like the romantic hero of a young adult paranormal TV series. In fact, the whole set-up irresistibly reminded me of this – the candles, old books and battered wooden boxes scattered around the table give a sense of a New World fantasy of the Old World, given authenticity by Silven’s soft Caledonian accent. The stage is set for seduction, of a most courteous and confounding kind.

Silven is, first of all, a storyteller. The narrative that binds At the Illusionist’s Table revolves around his grandfather – in particular, his grandfather’s watch – and the landscapes of his childhood: forests, moonlight, old houses with attics. He capitalises on the intimacy of the setting – much of his act is about the special connection of performance, the gathering of strangers together for this particular evening.

That, along with the liberal lashings of alcohol – sparkling wine is followed by white wine, and then red, for each course, with a palate-cleansing single malt whisky between courses – induces a genial mood. Ripe, one would think, for the manipulations of the mentalist’s art.

He begins with a simple card trick – three of us are given some cards to shuffle, which are then snapped together by a rubber band. We’re invited to toss the cards to another person of our choice (I almost messed this up by forgetting to warn them) who chooses one of the cards. Silven instructs them to do so under the table or otherwise conceal their choice, so it’s impossible to see, and then to keep the card under their hand.

His task is to guess the hidden card, and he lets us in – or appears to let us in – on one of his techniques. He runs through the colours and suits, and he checks a betraying flicker of expression on the cardholder’s face. “Yes, it’s red, isn’t it?” he says. Which it is. He goes on to name the suit and the actual card. But even with two wines under my belt, it seemed to me there was something else going on.

As the evening wore on, his feats of mentalism became more and more preternatural, and all of them were ingeniously woven into the larger narrative of the show. The overwhelming temptation, of course, is to lay out every single thing he did, like putting my own cards on the table, flinging up my hands to exclaim: But how did he do that? And that, how did he do it? But to do so would spoil the surprise and delight that are such an animating part of the act.

Silven’s illusions are in fact astounding. These aren’t simple acts of psychological manipulation, and there’s no visible trickery, although there are some beautiful tricks. Thinking it over afterwards, I surmised there may have been some sleight of hand in a sequence that involved me looking closely at one of those old books; but then what followed didn’t depend on any sleight of hand, and was remarkable.

Rather, Silven somehow invokes from his audience members – even as we’re trying to wrong-foot him by thinking something other than what might be expected – exactly the image or word or number that he predicts. And it’s far too accurate and specific for guesswork.

After the show, someone said I was particularly suggestible. I almost took offence (me? a patsy?). But… maybe? After all, I enter any show in a state of suggestibility: it’s part of the job of being there. And there’s no denying there was a lot of alcohol.

Silven doesn’t proffer any explanation of his abilities, although the strong suggestion is that he’s a telepath. He presents himself primarily as a performer, opening up a sense of wonder. And that is exactly what he does. But the more you think about these techniques, the more disturbing they feel: are we really that credulous? (It appears we are.) In the hands of frauds and shysters they’d be dangerous indeed.

I went to see Wonders stone-cold sober, with my scepticism set to full blast. The Famous Spiegeltent, which has its own freight of nostalgia, is as suitable a venue for Silven as the Chapter House. This time with an audience of 300, he presents a different act with the same charm. We’re again introduced to his grandfather’s house, but in this show the memoried item is his grandmother’s necklace. And here again is his insistence on connection to the world and to each other, through the medium of the mentalist.

This is a more conventional act, with audience volunteers ushered onto the stage to reveal the numbers or words or personal memories that they hold in their mind and are unerringly picked by Silven. Again, Silven’s hands are visible at all times, and much of the act is derived from the audience members. And, again, there’s a jaw-dropping reveal at the end. I left equally confounded, thinking of James I: “And yet are all these thinges but deluding of the senses, and no waies true in substance …” While I can hazard a guess at some of the tricks, I’ll be damned if I know how Silven does the really impressive ones. Maybe he really does read minds.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 5, 2019 as "Illusionist of grandeur". Subscribe here.

Alison Croggon
is an award-winning novelist, poet, playwright and critic.