Illusions of Depression: a mental health themed magic show

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Kate Lovell experiences a Magic Circle member exploring and exploding mental health myths at Tolbooth Market as part of the PBH Free Fringe, at Edinburgh Fringe. Commissioned by Dolly Sen as part of her guest editorship on Disability Arts Online.

Man hiding behind a book

Paul Regan

An exquisitely apt title along with a responsible flyer flagging potentially triggering content is a rare treasure at the Fringe. Illusions of Depression delivers on both counts.

It is immediately striking what an appropriate metaphor illusion is to explore depression and mental illness. Depression in particular distorts, deceives and dissembles our thoughts, our beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. Magician Paul Regan has hit upon a rich and intriguing vein in his creation of a deeply personal one-man conjuring show about his own experiences of mental illness and autism.

Sitting somewhere between performance art, autobiographical storytelling and a magic show, Regan’s performance is unique and thought-provoking. Writing about his piece poses a challenge for a reviewer: it is poor etiquette for illusions to be revealed to potential future audience members. It is spoiling nothing, though, to comment upon Regan’s poignant routine about having feeling at once the same and yet different. He illustrates this story with a series of different coloured sponge balls, which appear, reappear, multiply and change colour before our eyes. It is a delicate and gentle routine which is effecting in its simplicity.

Eliciting strong emotional responses in his audience is at the heart of Regan’s skilful audience manipulation. The show is not for the faint hearted, and the trigger warnings about themes of self-harm and suicide are given with good reason. Regan deliberately makes his audience uncomfortable, performing feats of illusion which border on the self-destructive, particularly for someone who explicitly states that he is in continual battle with his own mind demons. This is a fascinating stance: Regan dares the audience to wonder whether he is truly a magician or a ‘madman’. There are times where it is palpable that the room is on tenterhooks: is Regan is entirely in control of his performance? This tension is cleverly reinforced by his claims of attempting his tricks for the very first time in front of our eyes.

Regan peppers his performance with statistics about mental health, elegantly sweeping away myths by depositing hard facts amidst his far more slippery illusions. Listening to a man in his thirties discussing his experiences with suicidal ideation so frankly and openly is an urgent testimony, delivered from the inside of a demographic whose number one cause of death is suicide.

The daredevil, almost reckless, feats performed create tension and apprehension within the tiny, intimate room: you cannot look away. This is symbolic. Regan highlights the importance of dealing with the discomfort surrounding our male suicide epidemic with his raw performance: he compels us to bear witness to the too-often-hidden reality of male mental distress. His artistry as a magician is compelling and his frankness about the darkness he has lived is stirring. The combination powerfully rattles mental health misconceptions: activism by alchemy.

Paul Regan performs a monthly magic show alongside other illusionists at D20 Board Game Café, Watford.