On Tuesday night at the New Ambassadors Theatre, Marc Salem destroyed the last of my religious faith. It's true. Several years ago, I was a member of a Spiritualist church, and although I saw a lot of supernatural huckstering, there were also some apparently psychic phenomena I couldn't explain away, and these stayed with me as possible evidence for belief. Salem – who would have been called a mentalist in the days of variety – repeatedly states that there is nothing extra-sensory to what he does, but his feats exceeded anything I'd seen in those church "demonstrations of mediumship".
During the first half of his 90-minute show Mind Games, you can sometimes see the basics of how he does it, which he also partly explains in the programme notes. Some of it is reading involuntary bodily cues from his audience helpers – a pause, an eye movement or whatever. Some of it is discreetly leading us in the direction he wants us to go – too subtly for us to understand in detail, but a telling moment came when he demanded a specific form of words from a woman phoning her husband to obtain a three-digit number which Salem had "predicted".
This false sense of blasé security is bolstered by his stage presence, which is low on extravagant razzmatazz. He has learnt an easy, playful style of patter some way from the fairground-barker style of the likes of his fellow Americans Penn Jillette or Jim Rose, but he is not naturally charismatic. Indeed, short, bald on top and bearded, he resembles a dapper but cuddly comedy uncle in his grey three-piece suit. His career consists of lecturing and research as much as public performance.
But just when you think it's the sort of thing you could perhaps do yourself with enough study and application, Salem shifts gear from the "warming up" part of the show into a sustained stream of incredible, inexplicable... for all his disavowals of the paranormal, the only way to describe it is "mind-reading". Securely and impenetrably blindfolded with coins, surgical tape and bandana, he bursts forth with a torrent of identifications, of punters' personal possessions and their unspoken memories of trips abroad.
Occasionally there's still a tiny bit of verbal fishing, but far more often he seems simply to go too fast for those in question even to respond. It's possible, I suppose, that the huge, hollow papier-mâché penguin with a sock stuffed inside came from an audience plant rather than, as seemed clear, a clever-dick trying to catch him out, but one of my colleagues was amazedly protesting after the show that he had no idea how Salem correctly identified that he was thinking of a trip he had made to Moldova. One's jaw gets sore from repeatedly hitting the floor.
Arthur C. Clarke stated that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". Well, Marc Salem's mental technology is without doubt sufficiently advanced. And then some.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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