When research scientist and PhD student Kevin McMahon took part in a TV reality show that gave members of the public a crash course in a field diametrically opposed to their own, he would never have dreamt that it would lead to him, not just switching careers, but to founding what was probably the world's first magic festival. As the fourth Edinburgh International Magic Festival begins this weekend, however, McMahon, now the festival's co-director and a full-time close-up magician himself for the last six years, it's an accidental dream come true.
It was when McMahon applied to take part in Faking It that the dream began. The producers whisked him off to America, where he studied magic for two weeks under globally successful double act, Penn and Teller. On his return, he performed to Paul Daniels, who presumed McMahon not to be an old hand at the magic game. McMahon himself was smitten, and has been performing professionally ever since.
EIMF was born from an idea McMahon had with his theatre producer partner and now wife, Svetlana McMahon, to showcase an artform that is too easily dismissed by highbrow types, but which has retained a mainstream appeal via the likes of Derren Brown and David Blaine.
“We were both looking for something to get our teeth into,” McMahon says of the festival's origins, “and it started out of something very personal for both of us. We ended up creating something that had never been done before. Magic's a unique artform, and it has its own particular quirks, but the more you get to know it, the easier it becomes to love that world.”
This year's EIMF brings together a wealth of contemporary and traditional magic acts from across the globe, who will perform in a variety of venues, including an opening gala night at the Royal Lyceum Theatre. A major draw for magic fans will be the appearance of veteran artist David Berglas, who is considered to be the biggest sole influence on Derren Brown. Berglas will appear in conversation in the Empire Room at the Festival Theatre, where he last appeared in 1953.
“he's one of the most intriguing magicians in the world,” according to McMahon. “He's invented so many effects that you can see in every one of Derren Brown's shows.”
As well as stalwarts such as Berglas, McMahon aims to push the boundaries via a new wave of twenty-first century acts.
“There is a bit of a revolution going on in the magic world,” McMahon observes. “A lot of that is coming from France, and is largely based around object manipulation.”
Edinburgh is an ideal home for a magic festival, with a rich magical history which is acknowledged by EIMF's founding of an award named after the great contemporary of Harry Houdini, The Great Lafayette. This was inspired by a celebration of the German-born magician at The Festival Theatre, where the artist previously known as Sigmund Neuberger gave his final performance in 1911 when the building then known as Empire Palace Theatre went up in flames. This was caused by a faulty lamp, which ignited while Lafayette was in the midst of his celebrated Lion's Bride routine.
Lafayette's much loved pet dog, Beauty, given to him as a puppy by Houdini, had died four days before, after which Edinburgh City Council agreed to break one of their own by-laws to allow Beauty to be buried in a cemetery plot normally the preserve of people only. They did this on the proviso that Neuberger agreed that he too would be buried there. A further twist in the tale occurred when it was discovered that Neuberger's body double had been buried by mistake. This was only realised when Neuberger's actual body was found, and the urn containing his ashes was paraded through Edinburgh before a reputed 250,000 onlookers being buried alongside Beauty at Piershill Cemetery, in the north-west of the city.
“Lafayette was an amazing magician,” says McMahon. “There are a lot of documents on hum in the Magic Circle, and looking back he was certainly on a par with Houdini.”
Given that Edinburgh is home too to all manner of entertainments both during and outwith the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, magic's relationship with other artforms isn't immediately apparent. This despite the likes of comedian Jerry Sadowitz, who, as well as being one of the most potty-mouthed and confrontational comedians, is also regarded as one of the best close-up magicians in the world.
“Magic suffers sometimes from its veil of secrecy,” McMahon admits, “which is fine in terms of maintaining intrigue, but also holds it back. It's difficult. I'm a member of the Magic Circle, and I've signed agreements not to reveal certain things, but at the same time, we should be reaching out and collaborating more instead of looking inwards.”
Two instances where magic has been integral to subsidise theatre came, first in Vox Motus' show, The Infamous Brothers Davenport, and more recently in Rob Drummond's solo deconstruction of the form, Bullet Catch. Like McMahon, Vox Motus director Jamie Harrison is a member of the Magic Circle, and worked as a magician for several years before forming the company. While currently providing illusions for the west end adaptation of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Harrison brought his two passions together in a homage to the real life brothers who toured the world with their bag of tricks before being found out as a hoax. Drummond's piece went further in its dissection of magic, even going so far as to expose how one trick was done.
While McMahon is full of praise for Harrison, and praises Drummond's ability to handle an audience, he remains loyal to the Magic Circle's code of honour.
“When you buy a trick,” he says, “you buy the rights to perform it, but not to expose it.”
Beyond this year's EIMF, McMahon will revive The Colour Ham, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe show he performs in alongside mind-reader Colin McLeod and comedian Gavin Oates. Despite such levity, McMahon takes his job as a magician very seriously indeed.
“It's a vocation,” he says. “I just want magic to be given the respect it deserves, and for people to come along and have fun.”
Edinburgh International Magic Festival, June 28th-July 5th, various venues.
Edinburgh International Magic Festival 2013 – The Highlights
Opening Night Gala – Royal Lyceum Theatre, June 28th, 2.30pm and 7.30pm. A first night compendium of some of the world's leading magicians, including the emotionally charged Ta Na Manga from Portugal, the dragon-suited Piff the Magic Dragon, Charlie Mag from Spain, and, from France, Jerome Helfenstein.
A Conversation With David Berglas – Festival Theatre, June 29th, 2pm. Magic's 'international man of mystery returns to the theatre where he made his Scottish debut in 1953 to discuss his towering influence on the magic community, including a debt acknowledged by Derren Brown.
Paul Wilson – Sleight of Hand – SKYbar, Point Hotel, July 3rd, 7pm, 8.30pm, 10pm. The star of BBC TV's The Real Hustle and one of the world's leading close-up magic performers gives a guided tour of his favourite miracles he's discovered 0over the last thirty years.
There will also be a series of free events, including workshops, street performances, family shows and a competition for would-be magicians, War of the Wizards.
The Herald, June 28th 2013