It was while we were eating Viennetta in the dusty hidden crypt of a church I’d never noticed before, that I started wondering whether the character of The Magician was actually supposed to represent the internet itself, the virtual world, the unseen ties between people. Nothing that my melodramatic hosts said made any sense, but I was hoping that the text messages I was receiving from The Magician would clear a few things up.
It wasn’t to be: Magna Mysteria lived up to its name and was a big mystery from start to finish. An ‘audience led’ performance, it took the form of a series of events linked to an online community which temporarily blossomed during Mayfest. The piece played with the intriguing idea that you might yourself be the main character; the Magician, who is central to the piece’s fairly loose and fluid narrative, remains an elusive figure.
Mercurial Wrestler are experts at building anticipation amongst their followers. Well in advance of the show, they started generating audience intrigue and excitement. Graffiti began appearing around town showing the intricately designed ‘Magna Mysteria’ logo. A website was set up with a blog showing video clips of people disappearing in broad daylight, and flyers appeared which proclaimed that ‘The Magician is coming’ on one side, and conversely, ‘You are a magician’ on the other.
Though the chosen aesthetic is a sort of vintage circus style, the use of media is bang up to date; in order to get properly involved with the piece you need to give away all sorts of personal information online without really knowing how it’s going to be incorporated into the performance.
There are up to four live events that happen as part of the Magna Mysteria experience. Much of the online activity is designed to get audience members talking to each other, by throwing out questions such as ‘what would you describe as a magic moment?’ and then leaving you to your discussion, should you choose to enter into one. It is never clear whether these discussions will lead anywhere or be useful later – perhaps the ‘final showdown’ will require the audience to come together in some way? A password protected section of the Magna Mysteria website offers different information to different sections of the audience depending on what tarot card you were given at the first event – the card was read and identified by a magic machine and personal login details were later sent to you by text. Other texts and emails offer cryptic instructions on where to go, what to bring, what to look out for. The team are working very hard behind the scenes to keep the Twitter, Facebook, text and email comms working together seamlessly, but a tweet doesn’t tell a story, and it became increasingly important that the live element of the performance lives up to the anticipation created by all this cloak-and-dagger business.
This is where this production fell down. After all the logistical wizardry involved in coordinating individual appointments for audience members, guiding us to a pop-up performance in an abandoned toilet and organising that ‘dinner’ in a crypt, the live elements remained somewhat unfathomable. After each encounter I was left confused, faintly disturbed at my own possible stupidity in not ‘getting’ what was going on, and – ever the optimist – looking forward to the next instalment in the hope that all would be revealed. This put a lot of pressure on the much-hyped ‘final showdown’, the only date and location that had actually been advertised in advance. There were questions that needed to be answered. Will the Morrelini sisters get back their beautiful younger sister who was taken away by the Magician so many years ago? Will the policeman-who’s-not-a-real-policeman find the Magician and get his face back?
This ‘final showdown’ was, however, by far the weakest of all the events; the audience were gathered together in an empty big top in near darkness. Many of the most enthusiastic members of the online community had decided to dress up as the magicians that they’d been informed they would be for the big finale – a visual demonstration of how invested in the piece many people felt. MP3 files had been sent to people to download which would enable them to form part of the soundtrack to the show. But there was no real performance to speak of. A poetic voice-over told us when to play our tracks and to wander around the tent. But both the voiceover and the tinny mobile-phone soundtrack got lost amid the chatter of all these ‘magicians’ who desperately wanted something more from the event.
On the Magna Mysteria Facebook page later, comments showed an audience that was bewildered but still supportive. They had enjoyed their experience and hoped Mercurial Wrestler would come back with more. (The company has since spoken out about technical failings at the venue). But while there was much of interest in the piece as a whole, in the way it brought people together and created a sense of connection and communication, it felt as if the company had been dangerously overconfident, promising far more than they were ultimately able to deliver.