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The Infamous Brothers Davenport - Vox Motus Raise The Dead

There's a strange kind of magic happening at the Royal Lyceum Theatre
in Edinburgh. While not directly related to The Infamous Brothers
Davenport, the biggest show to date from Jamie Harrison and Candice
Edmunds' visually inventive Vox Motus company, the two incidents of
unintentional jiggery-pokery are by-products worthy of Derren Brown.

First of all, an old-school dictaphone resolutely refuses to record an
interview with Harrison and Edmunds. Even when when fresh batteries are
hastily located, the admittedly ancient micro-cassettes fail to whirr
into action. The moment the interview, recorded ad hoc on a mobile
phone, is over, the dictaphone starts working again, original batteries
and all. This is apparently the second such incident to happen over the
previous week as the company pull together a technically audacious
concoction of old-time Victorian hokum and sibling rivalry scripted by
Peter Arnott.

Earlier at rehearsals, something infinitely less spooky but just as
telling about how Vox Motus operate occurred. Real-life acting brothers
Ryan and Scott Fletcher, who play the Davenport double-act who so
spectacularly conned audiences in need of salvation by seemingly
conjuring up dead spirits, are going through their paces in a scene
depicting something which these days might well end up on one of the
numerous haunted house style shows that populate multi-channel TV.

Scott Fletcher is playing Willie Davenport, as in real life the younger
of the brothers. Sporting period tail-coat, he is seated at a round
table, while his brother Ira, as played by Ryan Fletcher, watches over
him. Seemingly possessed by spirits unknown, Willie seemingly acquires
the soft-spoken demeanour of a southern belle, only to deviate from the
Davenport's script, taunting Ira like a ventriloquist's dummy who's
gone off-message.

As Edmunds and Harrison stop and start the action, fine-tuning it as
they go, there's a split-second pause when something happens that only
Ryan and Scott can see, but which shifts the whole mood of the moment.
It's thersort of unspoken alchemy that only those with a chemistry born
of long-term intimacy can acquire. If they wanted to, as with the
Davenports the Fletchers could probably pull the wool over everybody's
eyes. As it is, all crack up laughing as Ryan tells Scott to stop
whatever mischief he was signalling.

“It's like the way your mum looks at you,” says Ryan, “and she doesn't
need to say anything, but you know you're in for a hiding. When you're
onstage as well, your senses are heightened, so you do see things going
on with someone that nobody else can see.”

Scott points out that “Because we're playing brothers as well, you can
have fun with that sort of thing in rehearsals, although you should
probably keep it to your downtime. Working together, you're much more
settled straight away, because we know each other so well already.
There's a confidence and an understanding there before you've even
started.”

The same might well be said of the characters the Fletchers are
playing. The Infamous Brothers Davenport is inspired by the real-life
yarn of two American siblings who somehow connived their way into
taking the world by storm. The sons of a New York policeman who later
became their manager, Ira and William Davenport clung onto the
coat-tails of the Spiritualist movement which had become all the rage
in the mid nineteenth century.

Using only the power of suggestion and a bag of theatrical tricks that
conjured up the apparent image of dark forces from the spirit world,
the Davenports became a sensation. They travelled the country for a
decade with their trademark 'spirit box', and later travelled to
England before being exposed as frauds. Even legendary showman P.T.
Barnum took notice, going so far as to include them in his 1865 book,
Humbugs of the World.

While such jiggery-pokery forms a major part of The Infamous Brothers
Davenport, the truths or otherwise of the Davenports routines aren't
the play's driving force.

“We've been interested in doing something on the séance for some time,”
says Harrison, “so we started looking at spiritualist churches which
still exist today. Out of my own experience as a magician, we started
looking at the Davenport Brothers and, and found out that they started
doing tricks from a very young age, and eventually their father
realised they could make money out of it. They grew up in this really
tough frontier town, and had a very hard life.”

“They were violent and naughty and mischievous,” Edmunds continues.
“We thought at the beginning that the spirit cabinet was going to be
the main part of the show, but once we realised how interesting the
Davenports lives were, that became our angle, and it actually moves
away from that pretty quickly.”

Vox Motus have come a long way since Edmunds and Harrison formed the
company while students at what is now the Royal Conservatoire of
Scotland in Glasgow. Their 2007 debut, How To steal A Diamond, gave
little hints of the technical complexities that would become
increasingly ambitious in the broad comedy of Slick, the darkness of
Bright Black and the musical audacity of 2010's The Not So Fatal Death
of Grandpa Fredo.

One novel aspect of the company's biggest show to date is bringing
members of the audience onstage to sit alongside the Davenports as they
conduct their séance just as might happen at such an occasion in real
life. As Edmunds and Harrison acknowledge, such close-up involvement
has the potential to disrupt things unintentionally.

“An interesting thing as directors is trying to foresee every possible
reaction these members of the audience might have,” Harrison observes.
“Everyone will have a slightly different response, so we have to bed
the performers down, so they can continue the narrative arc no matter
what the people who come up onstage might do. The look of horror on the
actors faces when we unveiled these plans was a picture, but the thing
to emphasise is that they're not random members of the audience who do
this. It's a choice they make.”

This choice is made in the foyer as the audience enter into a mock-up
of a Victorian world in which they go as willingly as real-life
believers in the spirit world.

“It's been fascinating to look back at the start of spiritualism,”
says Edmunds, “which dates back to the Fox sisters, who just predated
the Davenports. People just wouldn't believe that these two children
were lying.”

Suspension of disbelief, then, is everything in The Infamous Brothers
Davenport.

“At the top of the show we want people to experience all the things
they associate with seances,” Edmunds explains, “but we also want to
take it further so people have an emotional investment in the narrative
and so it's not just all about tricks.”

As Harrison puts it, “The thing we've been holding dear all through the
creative process is the power of the human imagination, and the dark
places the imagination can take you. This belief in things like
spiritualism, I think it's directly proportional with what's going on
in in terms of a decline in belief in organised religion. The less that
people engage with organised religion, the more of a void there is, and
the more we try to fill it. That can be through scientific rational
beliefs, or it can be through something like spiritualism. I've put my
foot in it a few times talking about this show in presuming that
everybody has the same beliefs, and finding out that they really don't.
As theatre makers it's difficult to get a balance, because we don't
believe in anything beyond death as human beings, but we don't want to
criticise anyone's belief system in anyway, because for a lot of people
it provides hope.”

The Infamous Brothers Davenport, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh,
January 19th-February 11th, then tours.
www.voxmotus.co.uk
www.lyceum.org.uk

The Herald, January 10th 2012

ends

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