This article for the New Vic Theatre at Newcastle-under-Lyme was written as Paul was working on their production of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni (with a new libretto by Chris Monks) in 2008. For this re-working the libertine Don Giovanni had been transformed into Count
Zhivarny, a bogus Hungarian stage illusionist: “Dashing and charismatic, he has one aim: to seduce the entire female population of Victorian London! His conquests include a vengeful scientist, a love-lorn actress, and a newly-married cockney barmaid. But, as his victims close in intent on revenge, can he pull off a deathdefying disappearing act? And will he escape the ghostly spectre of the murdered Dr. Manometer?”
You might think that teaching Harry Potter how to do magic sounds a bit like teaching your grandmother how to suck eggs. But when Potter star Daniel Radcliffe wanted to learn the tricks of the trade, it wasn’t Dumbledore he turned to – far from it. He drafted in the non-fictional (and somewhat less hairy) figure of real-life master magician, Paul Kieve. The man behind some of the most impressive illusions on stage and screen, as well as being personal magic tutor to Harry Potter himself, Kieve’s talents have been called upon by the likes of Derren Brown, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Walt Disney; he’s helped saw Simon Cowell in half for Children in Need, taught a cast of vagabonds the art of pick-pocketing for BBC 1’s I’d Do Anything and is currently causing Hobbits to vanish nightly in front of audiences at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Needless to say, when the New Vic needed its leading man to saw a woman in half whilst singing his champagne aria, there was only one man for the job…
Trying to catch Paul Kieve at a quiet moment is a tricky endeavour. The most prolific and arguably successful illusions consultant in theatre history, Paul is certainly in demand, as his schedule proves. I manage to track Kieve down in between rehearsals for Don Giovanni, a production that has seen the trailblazing illusionist face possibly his biggest challenge to date: making a group of actors look like accomplished magicians.
“Now that’s an entirely different challenge,” laughs Paul on his latest venture. “Obviously I’m more used to designing effects than making actors look convincing whilst performing a magician’s repertoire. But the fact that there is nowhere to hide can actually help the actors – the audience are so near to you that they are usually more impressed!”
Certainly, there is also the small matter of performing a series of illusions in the round, with an audience close to the action, on all sides. As Paul says, even though sawing a woman in half and making someone disappear in the round is not without its problems, nothing is impossible.
“Performing in the round can be tricky. I started off life as a performer and obviously gone are the days when you only work in proscenium arch theatres, so it always has to be versatile. But cutting the cloth to the width is all part of my job. We are being a bit cheeky with some of the effects for Don Giovanni but, with a little bit of help from the lighting and the staging, we’ve been able to create the final result.”
Certainly, a challenge is nothing new to Paul whose consulting work for both stage and screen has seen the illusionist from London change the face of magical special effects in theatre. It all started in 1991, when a unique opportunity presented itself. Paul had just finished a tour as one half of double-act The Zodiac Brothers when a friend mentioned that writer and theatre director Ken Hill was looking for someone to help with special effects for his adaptation of The Invisible Man. Would he be interested? The production presented the young magician with the daunting task of actually achieving an invisible character on stage: “People have said to me since ‘How did you know any of it would work?’ In retrospect I didn’t know any of it would work. With illusion and magic, you’re hoping to create something that has a very particular effect on the audience, which is hopefully astonishment and enjoyment.” Paul needn’t have worried. Not only did it work – he created an invisible man that appeared to smoke cigarettes live on stage – but his effects stole the show, winning rave reviews and a world record for over 40 magical effects in the process.
Since then Kieve’s talent has taken him all over the world, working with some of the biggest names in the business. But amongst the ‘David Copperfield’s’ and the ‘Walt Disney’s’, there is one particular credit in Paul’s impressive biog that stands out.
“It was terrific to be involved with Harry Potter”, says Paul on the project that saw him become the only ever magician to work on the world’s most successful film series. Indeed, when film director Alfonso Cuaron, the man behind Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, decided he wanted real magic in the movie he called in Kieve. “I was working very closely with the director and was responsible for some of the ‘real live’ magic effects.”
Not only did Paul impress the director enough to win a cameo role, but it was whilst working on the film that Kieve also gained the epithet of ‘real-life Dumbledore’. Explains Paul: “Daniel Radcliffe (who plays Harry Potter) is a fantastic kid and he showed a genuine interest in magic, so I started to teach a few bits during lunch breaks on the film set. Eventually, I was going over to his house in Fulham on his days off for two or three hours of ‘magic-jamming’ sessions! His energy for it was so infectious I ended up re-learning stuff I hadn’t done in ten years.”
His work teaching Daniel and telling him anecdotes about bygone magicians has led Paul to take a leaf out of JK Rowling’s book – literally. The unstoppable illusionist has just finished penning his own children’s fiction, Hocus Pocus. “I hadn’t taught a young person magic before, so I thought if Daniel wanted to learn, I didn’t want to just teach him a few tricks. I wanted to try and give him an overall sense of this great world. So I started to take over an old book with a funny story about one of the great magicians from the ‘golden age’ of stage illusion, and as I was doing that I thought that this isn’t a bad idea for a book. That was the start of Hocus Pocus.”
With a foreword by Daniel himself and testimonials from no less than Derren Brown and David Copperfield, this new foray into fiction will undoubtedly prove another success for the magician with the Midas touch.
Certainly, with Paul on board, Don Giovanni is another project set for theatre gold – after, that is, he finishes the task in hand. As Kieve ends our conversation to return to putting our actors through their magical paces, it strikes me that Count Zhivarny and co. are in the safest pair of hands there is. Needless to say, when it comes to showing you a thing or two about magic, who needs Hogwarts?