Real Magic feels like an absurdist depiction of that famous definition of insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. At its core is a 3-minute sketch – a simple parody of a bad game show – which is then re-enacted in a continual loop over a period of 95 minutes. The result is comedic, bewildering and provocative.
The looped ‘game’ is delightfully ridiculous: a compere explains to a blindfolded contestant that they will be asked to guess (without clues or questions) a random word which the other actor is displaying to the audience. The contestant then makes three equally random wrong word guesses, and is thereby ‘out’ – game over. The three actors (Claire, Richard and Jerry) then do it again, and again, and again – swapping roles for each re-enactment – repeating the rules and making the same three wrong guesses. The absurd nature of this whole process is heightened by the intermittent donning of chicken suits. And that’s it.
Except it isn’t, really.
There is a lot in this piece which stops this repetitive structure feeling … well, simply repetitive. For example, while the content of all the re-enactments is (broadly) identical, each displays a different emotional dynamic: we witness excitement, enthusiasm, determination, hope, anxiety, distress, despair, irritation, boredom, anger, concern, frustration, contempt, disappointment, defeat. The performances are superb and the range of emotions injects surprise and freshness – as do the shifts in pace and tension. Once the pattern is established, some iterations are comically swift and mechanical while others are prolonged with fake tension and build-up: each time as though the end result is somehow in question.
There are also some lovely comedic moments, highlighting the bizarre and impossible premise of the game: I especially like the compere’s attempts to reassure and encourage the contestant by calling the wrongly guessed word ‘close’ or a ‘good answer’.
But it is the manipulation of audience response that is, for me, the most interesting aspect of the show. After the second, third, fourth iteration, the audience obviously ‘gets’ what’s happening. And we know that the actors know that we ‘get’ it. And yet there are another 80-odd minutes to go. At first, I am simply amused by the apparently infinite variations they can introduce into this very basic scenario. Then I find myself waiting for something to change – surely this can’t be all there is? Surely there will be a twist! And during this phase, I am aware that (totally irrationally) I almost share the ridiculous optimism of the game itself – that maybe one time the contestant will actually guess correctly! Then, eventually, the ‘why?’ question stars creeping into my consciousness; the ‘what on earth is this about?’ question.
It is at this point that it all begins to feel a bit bleak. I am put in mind of the way in which much of our working life can be experienced as a repetitive grind: we get up and go to work and perform our role and come home and watch TV and go to bed and repeat the whole thing the next day. And, although each day the details may be slightly different, basically nothing changes. And yet – like the contestant up there on the stage, and against all the evidence – we act as though this time something may turn out differently. The very definition of insanity. There is a telling moment towards the end when contestant Claire is effectively told what the word is. Richard – desperate and weary of it all – whispers ‘sausage’ and points to his placard with the word on it. Then, with an indulgent and complacent smile, Claire turns to Jerry and confidently guesses the same, incorrect word she has done many times before – ‘MONEY’. It is a thoroughly dispiriting moment: change/release/victory has been offered, but rejected (or wilfully ignored) for the safety of the habitual.
Truth is, though, I have no idea what Real Magic is about. And perhaps that’s what’s great about it – it’s almost a blank screen onto which people can project their own interpretations. Forced Entertainment see it as part of their mission to confuse and provoke as much as to entertain, and the buzz of animated post-show discussion in and around HOME’s bar seems sufficient evidence that they have achieved this. And while the show would have benefited from being a good 40 minutes shorter, the audacity of the concept as well as the highly accomplished performances make it a memorable watch.
Real Magic was performed at HOME (https://homemcr.org/) 30 Nov- 1 Dec as part of its UK tour.