Shooting in the Theatre

Here’s something that I’ve been mulling over for quite a while. And I still haven’t got my head around it.

It was an episode of a Derren Brown show, called the Experiments. If you’ve never heard of him, he’s an illusionist with a psychological twist – a lot of what he does involves suggestion and manipulation. It’s truly fascinating. But in the Experiments, he investigates four different questions. The first episode was about whether someone could be manipulated to assassinate someone, and not remember anything about it. Older readers might be thinking of Sirhan Sirhan about now – because that’s exactly what he was trying to mirror.

So he picked a particular person (susceptible to hypnotism), and went through a variety of steps. There was the switch to a hypnotic state (seeing a dark blue background with white polka dots), and the hypnotic suggestion that he should not remember anything that happens while he’s in the hypnotic state. (One memorable scene involves him being hypnotised, giving Derren his bank PIN number, and being amazed that Derren knew it a minute later.) Then there’s the firearms training (again while hypnotised), so that he was much more accurate under hypnosis than not.

All of this builds up during the show, and at the end, it turns out that the assignment he’s been given is to assassinate Stephen Fry during a theatre performance. All goes according to plan, right up to where he gets the cue, stands up and fires two shots at Mr. Fry. Blanks, obviously, but this is where the whole thing just got a little bit wacky.

Because up to this point, while it’s been a bit macabre – twisting the mind of what seems to be a really nice guy – it’s been a bit predictable. It was fascinating, but you knew where it was going. But then, Fry gets “shot”, complete with blood packs, and falls to the floor onstage, and the “assassin” sits down. And the rest of the audience just sits there in shocked silence, without moving. It’s such a British reaction. I can’t imagine the same reaction in a US audience (certainly not one in the South, anyway), or a South African one either. If there wasn’t a screaming rush for the door, there would be bound to be an armed audience member willing to take things into their own hands.

But after five minutes of awkward silent disbelief, someone comes on stage and revives Fry, and all is explained as a set-up. There’s a coordinated sigh of relief, and everything carries on as per normal. Oh, good to see you back up, Mr. Fry, that was a bit embarrassing there.


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