Former magician and professional skeptic James Randi walks around with a cheque for approximately one million dollars in his pocket, payable to any person who can prove their extra-normal abilities in a controlled environment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no would-be conduits to the spirit world, benders-of-spoons or masters of telekinesis have been able to vex the discerning eye of Mr. Randi, let alone claim the money. The debate between sceptics and spiritualists is, despite the efforts of the former, not just a relic of the past. The real Davenport brothers were as unexceptional in their supernatural claims as Colin Fry, for instance, and were in fact debunked by contemporaneous Victorians whose allegiance was to a more honest form of illusion-based entertainment. Peter Arnott’s play, The Infamous Brothers Davenport, is quite correct to draw a straight line between the Davenports and their modern inheritors, who still captivate audiences with séances and such like, despite the prevailing wind of what might be called – allowing a moment of Victorian pastiche – our current, scientific age.
Thus, we are introduced to a Lady Noyes-Woodhull, who is attempting to contact her long-lost husband through supernatural means, and has employed the Brothers and Mr. Fay, their ‘master of ceremonies’, to this end. The resultant show is interrupted by flashbacks that explain the back-story of Ira and Willie Davenport, and their hellish domestic upbringing in mid nineteenth-century New York State.
Oddly, but not inexplicably, the Lady has deigned it appropriate for this event to be ticketed. As a result, several members of the audience were hand-picked from the wings, conspicuously dressed in the appropriate garb, and placed on stage – though the fact that one man appeared to be wearing a pair of modern spectacles slightly marred the attempt at historical immersion. This was unfortunate because the impressive set, complete with Victorian technology, drawing-room panelling and the imposing centre-piece of the Davenport ‘spirit cabinet’, had the potential to be particularly transportive.
The grandiose Lyceum can overwhelm at times, but it was the ideal space for the numerous and antiquated instruments of artifice to be paraded. Levitating séance-tables, ‘spirit-trumpets’ and flying tambourines were well-received by an audience that, despite displaying their incredulity through frequent bouts of laughter, found themselves entering into the spirit of things. They were aided in this by a convincing cast. The brothers, played by Ryan and Scott Fletcher, struck a good balance between spookiness and fraudulence in their performance, and Gavin Mitchell’s turn as ring-leader Mr. Fay brought the audience onside in a matter of minutes.
The ‘stage-séance’ itself is, by and large, entertaining, and not entirely inconsequential. What rendered this play unpalatable was everything about the utterly unremarkable back-story of the brothers, which prevented any kind of interest in the main characters and, at its worst, entirely alienated the viewer from all of the impressive set-design and stage illusions. Unconvincing American accents can perhaps be forgiven, but when the rapacious father swaggers into the family shack sporting a Gangs of New York top hat and a hard-on for his daughter, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that America, as a subject, has not really, or at least not seriously, been engaged with. Ira and Willie Davenport are contextualised by said father, a laudanum-addled mother, and an angelic sister, Katie, who is quickly martyred in order to facilitate Willie’s disingenuous link with the ethereal realm. In one scene the father describes raping his future wife while she was experiencing divinely-inspired convulsions, and ‘the spirit of the Lord’ was moving through him as he did so. That he relays this information to his boys at their mother’s graveside is shocking, but not in a way that facilitates engagement. It feels cheap, a way of forcing the audience to connect with an otherwise impotent back-story that takes place in an America rendered insipid through cliché.
These scenes informed the actual séance to such a degree that it was difficult to appreciate the impressive artistic direction that has earned Vox Motus their clearly deserved acclaim. The inter-relation between back-story and live show should have provided a piquant and sincere undercurrent to the apparent farce. However, because these scenes were unintentionally farcical, any relevant points that The Infamous Brothers Davenport broached – about pseudoscience, or the grief-industry, to take just two examples – were impossible to take seriously. This, in turn, cheapened the comedic potential of the whole affair. Laughter was directed as much at the comparative ignorance of the Victorians than it was at the evident falsity of the Davenports’ raison d’être. Because of this historical equivalence, the show failed to engage with the fact that popular attitudes to the paranormal have not greatly changed in the past few centuries. This might have amounted to a disruption of the Victorian narrative of progress: the point is, however, barely hinted at. Instead, we are invited to giggle at Lady Noyse-Woodhull’s husband, lost in darkest Africa like some inept Livingstone: one of many examples in this production of harder truths being displaced by easier laughs.