Master of the Macabre
Joe Daly knew he wanted to be a magician at the tender age of six when he saw Paul Daniels in Blackpool. Now the Irish illusionist's new show Magick Macabre is set to make magic sexy -- and has attracted the attention of master of horror Wes Craven. By Susan Daly
MAGICIAN Joe Daly doesn't pull rabbits out of hats. He might have, once upon a time, when he made his living from performing at kids' birthday parties. But since he teamed up with horror movie king Wes Craven and the producers of Riverdance, Daly has moved onto an altogether more sophisticated level of illusion.
Magick Macabre, a show which has a preview on the Late Late Show tonight before its world premiere in Dublin's Olympia this autumn and then a transfer to the bright lights of Las Vegas, is a pretty unique undertaking. The blurb promises a stage show that combines grand illusion, magic and special effects, and is "by turns scary, funny, romantic, shocking and sexy".
Set in a grim asylum, the action will revolve around the evil deeds of psycho Daemon Condell, played by Daly. He is a character Daly first created for a much smaller show he toured briefly in Dublin and Derry in 2003, Vapours.
Funded by a credit union loan and the proceeds of selling his car, Daly set out on a one-man mission with Vapours to make magic cool.
"Magic shows can be a bit twee; wind blowing in the magician's hair, leather trousers, tight white shirt, all that," says Daly. "I wanted an alternative."
"What I didn't want to do was, here's a trick, here's a box, let me show you what it does, and then, oh, look at this trick. The fact that there was a story in Vapours meant everything had a reason and it flowed naturally between each illusion. Magick Macabre has even more of a narrative. When the curtains go back, the set is there and you are in that world for the entire show. It's to be a theatrical appearance, like watching a play."
Daly is trying to explain his vision to me as we sit in the boardroom of Riverdream, the company owned by Riverdance creators John McColgan and Moya Doherty. Downstairs in a huge workshop, four magicians are building illusion props under Daly's instruction. Other parts being constructed in the US by a magician who worked on David Copperfield's sets.
Renowned set designer Ferdia Murphy and Tudors costumier Joan Bergin are creating the background. The stunt co-ordinator from Saving Private Ryan is also on board. "There are elements of danger in the show," says Daly, "the opening will be like something out of a movie."
Such a high level of production doesn't come cheap. This is where Riverdream comes into the picture. After Vapours -- which Daly created, marketed, financed and produced himself -- he knew he needed help to take his ideas to the next stage.
"I over-extended myself with Vapours. I made the money back after we did a week's run at the Helix in UCD, but I had no plan for what would have happened if it didn't work out."
Daly made up promotional packs about the show and sent them out to big names in the entertainment business. "Basically, I needed the Louis Walsh of theatre!" McColgan -- a fan of magic and horror, according to Daly -- was one of those invited to attend Vapours. "He came to see me after the show and said, 'We think you have something special here, something unique and we want to help you to take it to the next level'."
And just like that, the then 26-year-old from Raheny had one of the prime movers in large-scale theatrical productions in his corner. They worked on the idea for a bigger, more spectacular show together. "Then one day, McColgan said, 'I'm contacting Wes Craven'."
Craven, of course, is the horror mastermind behind such blockbusters as The Hills Have Eyes, the Nightmare on Elm Street series and Scream, but he had never been involved in a stage show. No matter, says Daly, because a few days later McColgan received a message at his home that Craven was interested and wanted to meet them.
One week-long meeting in Boston later, and Craven was on board as writer for a Vegas version of Magick Macabre. Daly was ready to be starstruck. "But it turns out that he [Craven] is the most normal guy, he's like your favourite secondary school teacher who taught woodwork. He's kind of soft-spoken, very genteel and unassuming. I almost expected black eyeliner and big leather jacket, but there was none of that. He listened to what I had to say about magic, because that's what I know. And he listened to John's input about the theatricality of it, the scale of it, because that's what he's good at," says Daly.
While Daly's script will be used for the Dublin show, Craven has written up "a totally different world" for Vegas -- but Joe will still be starring as Daemon. "Wes is a really good storyteller and the Vegas version tells a completely different story," says Joe. "They don't even have an interval in the Vegas show because that's the nature of the audience. They're really in Vegas for gambling, so if you let them off to the bar for a drink during the interval, oh, there's a slot machine, and you lose half of your audience." Craven is a director used to multi-million dollar budget films -- surely he's expecting major things from a stage show he's willing to put his name to?
"It's funny, that," laughs Daly. "When John got the script back from Wes, he rang me and said: 'This is one of the best things I've ever read'. But there were bits in it that might have been a bit too fantastical, production values-wise -- you know, Daemon flies up in the air and shoots a bolt of lightning out of his hand -- so we had to pare that down a bit. But it brought our level way up and we had to think bigger and better."
Definitely no rabbits out of a hat then. Some of the illusions that Daly is perfecting for Magick Macabre sound like a roll call of horror blockbusters -- The Burning Alive, The Drill of Death, The Sawing In Half. "Sure, there is horror, there is gore, you can tell from the names," says Daly. "I really wanted to take the standard magic trick and completely turn it around.
"Typically, when you saw someone in half, you would have a box, but we have no box. We saw from his crotch right up to his neck. After we saw him in half, we split him in half."
Lovely. Daly insists, though, that Magick Macabre is not just the kind of gross-out fest beloved of teenage boys (and there may well be a 15+ cert on audience-goers). "There's lots of humour in the show. There's an element of tongue-in-cheek and although Daemon is a twisted, evil charming character on stage, there is something about him that the audience connect with, a bit like Roger Moore's Bond, with one eyebrow cocked, totally knowingly."
It's all a huge leap for the 31-year-old whose first influence was TV magician Paul Daniels. Daly was just six when his parents took him to see Daniels perform in Blackpool.
"I still vividly remember it, my sister and I were wearing stripy T-shirts and sitting in the front row. Paul Daniels spotted our T-shirts and said it was like looking at a pair of broken TV sets," recalls Daly, who was then called up on stage to be one of Daniels' little 'helpers'.
"I can't remember what the trick was, but I do remember looking down off the stage and not being able to see the audience because of the lights shining up on us. I was amazed, I thought Paul Daniels had made the audience disappear!"
After the trick, Daniels had the lovely Debbie McGee give little Joe a toy magic set, and "after that, every Christmas, birthday, it was always a magic present from then on".
In his first year at secondary school, budding magician Daly won the school talent contest. He began doing little slots on TV shows like Jo Maxi, and eventually paid his way through college by performing magic shows for children.
Magick Macabre, however, is definitely not for kids. And it's fair to say Joe Daly is in danger of evolving past his childhood idol Paul Daniels. Wes Craven described him in a recent interview as "fiercely talented". Is he worried that impending success could be just one big illusion?
"It's a little bit of pressure," says Daly. "But, my God, what an opportunity!" n
Magick Macabre, The Olympia Theatre, Dublin, October 24. For tickets go to www.mcd.ie and www.ticketmaster.ie