May 28, 2013 5:38 pm

Bullet Catch, The Shed, National Theatre, London – review

A magic trick is the launch-pad for a gripping, terrifying inquiry into free will
Rob Drummond, left, with volunteer in ‘Bullet Catch’©Victor Frankowski

Rob Drummond, left, with volunteer in ‘Bullet Catch’

Rob Drummond, a slender, mild-mannered Scot, takes the stage and poses a question to the already slightly apprehensive audience: “Is it possible to make someone do something they don’t want to do?” Over the next hour and a bit he will proceed to demonstrate that it is, by enticing a (presumably) law-abiding member of the public to level a gun at his head and pull the trigger. It’s an extraordinary piece of theatre – part drama, part magic show, part philosophical lecture – that mischievously plays with expectations. It builds, naturally, to the notoriously dangerous trick that gives the show its title: the “bullet catch”, in which the magician appears to catch between his teeth a bullet fired, live, by a stranger, from point-blank range. But Drummond’s interest is not really in the trick itself but in what that perilous exchange reveals about trust, connection and free will.

Drummond interweaves his observations with the story of a Victorian magician killed by the trick and the impact his death had on the man who pulled the trigger. Was it an accident or suicide? And if the latter, was it prompted by the performer’s existential nihilism? Drummond gets his own temporary accomplice to assist him in telling the tale, reading out the letters of the traumatised volunteer. Meanwhile he gradually probes away at his assistant’s own psyche, playing mind guessing games – pretty effectively – and eliciting a profile of their character and beliefs. The volunteer the night I attended was surprising: a small, quiet, middle-aged woman who didn’t look the type to sign up for wielding a Glock 17.

Drummond plays around so successfully with truth and illusion – getting audience members to lie to him, demonstrating how one illusion works then taking your breath away with another disturbingly dangerous one – that by the end you are no longer sure what is true. And he deftly shifts the focus to profound questions about choice, purpose and communication. But all this is done in the gentlest and most convivial of styles as he coaxes the audience to consider what really matters to them and whether their sense of free will is itself an illusion. It’s playful, deeply thoughtful, unsettling and finally terrifying. And of course the biggest question of all is why any of us is there in the first place, willing to risk watching one human being shoot at another with a loaded gun.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.

Life & Arts on Twitter

More FT Twitter accounts