The Davenport brothers, Willie and Ira, were among the most famous of the spiritualists operating in the Victorian era. While reports still exist of their stage show and the private séances they performed, virtually nothing reliable remains to inform us about the brothers themselves and the lives they led.
The Infamous Brothers Davenport represents a collaboration between Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison of Glasgow-based Vox Motus and playwright Peter Arnott, in which they construct a history for the brothers, while at the same time providing an experience of what it might have been like to attend one of their performances.
Vox Motus is a theatre company that has won a variety of awards for their inventive use of diverse media and visual story-telling and Peter Arnott has a similarly impressive back-catalogue and is currently writer in residence at the Traverse theatre. Together they have created a fascinating story and a fascinating piece of theatre with some impressive magic and tricks.
It is enticing that Victorian culture managed to contain within it such a precarious balance between faith and reason. The rise of scientific reasoning and the technological advancements this engendered on the one hand, was seemingly correlated with an equal rise in the belief in fairies, witches and ghosts on the other. It was as if, as the material world was deconstructed, demystified and thereby disenchanted, there was a real need to find enchantment in other worlds.
Seances and spiritualism were at their height, and one can sympathise that for the layman, just as the recent invention of the electric telegraph somehow acted as a bridge between continents, it could be possible that the spiritualist medium acted somehow as a bridge between this world and the next. The two hands then came together with those wanting to believe but not be fooled, demanding scientific proof of the existence of spirits, and the spiritualists often using the new ‘modern’ technology to develop magic tricks that would appear to provide the necessary substantiation.
This evening’s spiritual ‘meeting’ had apparently been organised and paid for by Lady Noyes-Woodhull, a wealthy widow searching desperately for news of her husband who was missing, presumed dead, but wanting firm scientific proof rather than the platitudes of deception. What happened at the meeting was then played out in full, from start to finish, interspersed with flashbacks that told a harrowing tale of the brothers’ lives and what had led them into this line of work.
This production was a truly theatrical experience, heightened by the setting in the Victorian Lyceum theatre, and the staff dressed in vaguely Victorian attire. Members of the audience were invited up on stage to inspect the wooden ‘spirit’ cabinet, ropes and other apparatus for ‘trickery’, and some members were even dressed up and took part in the séance.
Impressive though the effects were, when watching this spiritual performance today’s audience were always going to reason that there were no spirits at work here. Unfortunately, when watching the scenes of the brothers playing out their back-story while employing many of the same devices used in their show, this same scepticism could not be shifted: was this more smoke and mirrors that they were again trying to fool us with, or was this being played for real?
Disappointingly, this confusion and blurring of the boundaries between reality and pretence made it difficult to have faith in the brothers’ story enough to believe in it and therefore to be moved by it. It was all so theatrical, so appropriately melodramatic and magic that it was often, rather inappropriately, comic.
Overall, The Infamous Brothers Davenport is well worth viewing for there is much to admire here - despite requiring a 21st century audience to balance precariously on the bridge between faith and reason in a way that perhaps only previous eras could successfully manage.
Runs til 11 February (not Sunday), 7.45pm; Saturday matinees 2.30pm