Everyone needs a bit of magic in their life, and when that magic is presented with great wit and a bit of a devilish twist, so much the better! This is exactly what Paul Dabek, comedic magician from the UK, brings to the Baxter Theatre stage as part of The Jive Cape Town Funny Festival.
In the BBC series Doctor Who, there is an episode in season 3 where The Doctor meets Shakespeare and gives The Bard the line “All the world’s a stage”, because, as the Doctor explains, “the theatre’s magic”. Somewhere in the mix of what is generally perceived as traditional theatre, magic appears to have got lost to some degree, with old-style charismatic magick being dismissed in the modern day as but a party trick. Luckily, there are magicians out there bringing that charm back to the theatre where it belongs.
Sharing how that is being done through comedy, Dabek admits, “I think for a long time – certainly when I was growing up – people were like, ‘Oh, you do magic, Oh great … it’s the clown’, you know, the children’s bit, ‘Hey kids, we’ve got the magician here!’”
That misapprehension of what magic is, means that it is not readily associated with traditional genres of theatre. Unpacking this conundrum, Dabek reveals that “some of it is magic’s fault”, because magic has allowed people to buy into this misconception of the guy in a clown suit pulling coins from someone’s ear. Perhaps, placing magic at the theatrical periphery is but a trompe l'oeil…
“I would love to see magic seen as a more legitimate art form. I can’t remember exactly the order, but there was a wonderful list in a Simpsons episode once that was like, ‘Come on, everyone knows the pecking order, it is legitimate theatre, musical theatre, dance, magic, mime, puppetry…’ or I think mime came at the bottom.”
He proceeds to explain that magic goes through phases: At times we lose sight of it as something astonishing and then all of a sudden it grabs the attention of audiences again. “It is enjoying a real resurgence again now as legitimate mainstream entertainment. You’ve got several big tours going on around the world. The Illusionists… a big, big, big tour. They’ve got a show on Broadway, and a show touring at the moment, and it is all magic. And you get TV magicians, and internet magicians… so I think it goes out of fashion, and comes back into fashion… if you go into Europe and you go into Asia you find some real trailblazers with some interesting concepts of one-man shows. Some of the names that I would probably spout are maybe not known so well over here, but we have a guy called Derren Brown in the UK, and Derren is one of the quickest-selling live solo shows in the UK. Is he a magician? Yes. Do people believe he’s a magician? No. But you know, it all depends on how it’s packaged.”
Dabek has certainly got the packaging of his personal style of magic just right, incorporating not only sleight of hand and illusions in his repertoire, but also shadow puppetry with which he continuously keeps audiences guessing as to what he will conjure up next. That seems to be the trick, though, the element of surprise. If people expect the cliché of the children’s party clown, catching them off guard is Dabek’s secret.
Preconceived ideas are part of the misdirection then? Indeed! “They have a preconception that you can completely blow out of the water. So, sometimes it is quite good to hit them with something while they think they are going to see something else… So, for me it doesn’t matter what the public’s preconception is, as long as you exceed it.”
Dabek also brings a good dose of cheeky comedic banter to his magic act. It is not only the magic that takes audiences by surprise, but also Dabek’s astonishing gift of the gab. He is a true wordsmith, you simply can’t be sure what he will say next. “Well, I think for me magic is the vehicle with which I connect with an audience and entertain,” he contextualises critics describing him as being a vaudeville entertainer. “You have your base of what your set is – and I think that is very similar for comics [in comparison to magicians] as well – I guess the tricks for me are my skeleton, and where it goes from there is up for grabs. A lot of people have said that ‘He’s like a stand-up that does magic!’, as opposed to a magician that tells some jokes. So I’ve always felt led more towards the comedy side anyway, and I love improvising with an audience, I love banter when something unexpected happens, or when somebody calls out… that’s gold to a stand-up.”
Playing to that stand-up strength in the magical mix of things means he can get a little mischievous if the audience allows him to ‘roast’ them a bit, but always to the delight of all and never with any malicious intent. “Yeah, I’ve been known to roast an audience or two”, he confesses with a grin, “but two shows are very rarely the same for me… I love it when unexpected things happen. And, yeah, you know I’m cheeky, I like a bit of banter with the audience. And it depends how up for it they are... I speak very quickly and I am very quick at pulling an audience up, but with a wink!”
Using comedy and magic to lead the audience to the amazement and amusement of a trick is a kind of mystic thrill for Dabek as a performer. He explains that it is all about the underlying rhythm and execution of a set to draw an audience into a laugh. “There’s a couple of bits in my show which I’m like ‘it’s not a gag’, but for some reason because of that rhythm, and that the tone is the same as the character or the moment or whatever, it is funny! I think Robin Williams was a perfect example of that… of almost getting someone to the laughter point before they’ve even processed what was being said.”
Part of the ease with which Dabek captures an audience’s attention can perhaps be attributed to him not only being a comedic magician, but also being known to take a turn onstage as an actor playing some fittingly devilish roles.
“It must have been seven or eight years ago now, but yeah, I played Lucifer in the passion plays, the mystery plays, in Chester, which was set as medieval plays but which was still the biblical, story… I played a sort of Joker-esque devil. It was good, it was a real fun time. I did quite a bit of acting in my early days, and I do the odd bit now and again, but my tour schedule means that it is rare that I get to be in one place long enough to do it.” Dabek, with a certain glint in his eye, promises that audiences need not fear, some of that Lucifer-ness will definitely be onstage with him, shadow puppetry and all.
Listening to Dabek talk about how the different aspects of his entertainment experience filter into his shows, it is very obvious that performing brings him great joy, a joy that he loves sharing with an audience.
“It feels exciting [to be here], everyone is pretty stoked to be on here”, he remarks with specific reference to his local audience experience. “It is incredible! First time I’ve worked for a South African audience and yeah it’s been amazing. I would say this, Cape Town audiences remind me a little bit of a scouse audience, a Liverpudlian audience… and the Liverpool audiences are real party people… Liverpudlians – if they don’t like you, you’ll know. But if they like you, they’ll go to the ends of the earth for you. I’ve done shows in both The Empire, which is a two-and-a-half-thousand seater in Liverpool, and the backrooms of pubs. You will get a standing ovation even if you are in the backroom of a pub if they like what you do. And that’s how I felt walking out here [onto the Funny Festival stage]. This space [at the Baxter Theatre] is amazing for comedy, for a large room, because everyone is just right there. I described it like a wall of laughter… and it was great, I loved it! We all have to keep to our times, and it is almost like, ‘Stop laughing now, I have something else to say’, which is a lovely position to be in. Great vibe, great!”
That vibe, Dabek promises, carries straight through the Funny Festival show, with the acts and performers complementing each other and delivering a high standard of entertainment. “It’s got three or four acts that could easily close the show – and that does not mean that some of them are better than the others – but you can take your pick. Anyone on that bill could open and close, there is no weak link. Eddy [Cassar] really knows how to put a show together. There is a great flow to it.”
Go enjoy the magic, vibe and flow of The Jive Cape Town Funny Festival with Dabek and the other world-class performers at the Baxter Theatre. The full festival runs until 6 August 2017, with Dabek adding his mystical charm to the line-up until 1 August 2017. Tickets are available at Computicket.