Entering the dark side

Mentalist of the Year Keith Barry’s new show opens in Killarney tonight. David Young plays head games with the maestro

KEITH Barry breezes into the restaurant of the Brehon Hotel — like he’s readying himself for a prize fight. Shifting from foot to foot, he shakes my hand and eyeballs the room. And then almost in a singular move, he installs himself at a table. Barry’s a keen talker and eager to get stuck into sparring.

“In Dublin and Cork, it can be a case of — C’mon Barry. You gotta prove yourself,” he says. “And that’s especially so in the first 10 minutes. If not ... they’ll eat you alive. Elsewhere’s more relaxed, like in Kerry, where I open my show every year at the INEC. They’re looking to be entertained.”

“But when people see the TV stuff, they’re thinking ‘Barry’s using stooges for his tricks’. Or it’s a set-up somehow. That’s why I get them up on stage, straight away. And that sorts that out,” he says, laughing at the idea of him being like a new teacher, staring down the barrel of a new class — every time he starts a gig.

“That’s my job,” he adds. “Making sure that people can escape the everyday stuff, and enter a world of fantasy. In the US, they’re primed to believe. Whereas in Australia, half the crowd are Irish. And often very drunk. They’re hard to quieten when they’re going for it hammer and tongs.”

Where does that leave Ireland? “A happy medium,” he shoots back. “My show’s in the genre of stand-up — so I play the comedy festivals too. But you gotta be careful. You gotta keep people on side, or it can spill over. And get very messy. The plan is to bring people on a journey.”

“Like, at the end of my 8 Deadly Sins show, I’d grab two big strapping lads from the audience. Give them 100 foot of rope,” he says, at a clip. “Get them to tie me to a chair, as tightly as they could. And if I didn’t free myself in a certain amount of time, they’d get 250 quid each.”

“This was to show the sin of greed,” he says. And people really went for it. “Every night I was getting rope burns. Dislocated thumbs. You could say I found out what it was like to be a rugby player. I was just injured all the time. Bad neck. All that stuff.”

“I used to then let them wrap my head in cling film. If you’ve ever had your head wrapped, you’ll know you can’t breathe or see,” he says. “I did the show 70 times. Losing only once. Even though I still got out, it took me too long. So, I paid up. Simple.”

And worse again? “Oh yeah. Another time in Dublin, I fell over while I was doing it. And passed out. I got winded ... ’cos I was lacking in oxygen,” he says. “Actually, I woke up with my manager Eamon taking the cling film off my face. And as he did, I started puking all over him.

“It wasn’t a pretty sight. But you look back on it and go ‘oh well, that didn’t work out too good’, and move on.”

Pushing the boundaries of his art is just what he does. Hence the daring new show. “It’s all about the occult. Witchcraft and voodoo. Seances and ouija boards,” he says. “I found out about a sacrificial ritual that they used to do years and years ago. And I said ‘I want to use that — on stage’. So now there’s daggers in the routine. Do I trust the audience not to stab me? No. But it’s in, anyway.”

And off he tears into describing the set-up: “Five daggers. Concealed in sheaths. One has a blade, the others don’t. I’m strapped down to a wheel, then spun. Four people stand around the wheel, ’til it stops. When it does, they choose their dagger ... and go to plunge their blade into me.”

“I’ve gone through the possibilities. All the permutations. But there’s still danger,” he says. “I don’t want to get stabbed. But there’s always a chance. Of course, this stuff brings you to strange places — to explore taboo areas. Don’t worry. I’m not aiming to kill myself.”

“As a kid, I used to make ouija boards. At lunchtime, I’d go to my grandparents’ house. It was only a few minutes away. I’d scribble down the alphabet on a board, and get a triangle. I was a bit mental. I was ‘if there’s a devil — show yourself. Let’s go’.”

“That said, I was in the living room, the other nights, playing with a ouija board. And one of my kid’s toys just switched itself on and toddled across the floor,” he says. “That might have freaked other people out. But for me, I just wondered ‘why?’ ”

He is a former scientist after all, who worked in a regular day job for a few years before jacking it all in — to become an entertainer, at 23. Making the leap from a salaried and secure number wasn’t straightforward. “I had to forage for years,” he says. “Hunting down gigs. Knocking on doors. Racking up bills, trying to get a break.”

“Was I worried?” he asks. “Yeah. But if I believe in doing something, I commit to it 100%. If you want to call yourself an ‘artist’, you have to affect people on an emotional level. I want people to feel — in this show — that they’re in a thriller movie.” For someone who’s put everything on the line to get where he is today, you believe him.

Five years ago, Keith was in a car crash that completely demolished his left leg. “In the hospital, they were going to amputate my left foot,” he says. “It was wrapped up around my ankle; all the bones were broken. And the doctor was trying to get it back in place. But it kept popping out.”

“I was screaming in pain,” he says. “And I could hear the doctor tell the nurse ‘if he doesn’t relax his muscles in minutes, set up the table’. And they were talking about amputation. So, I had to find a way of going to ‘another place’ — to get the muscles to respond. To save my foot — I had to self-hypnotise.”

This ability to focus has informed his approach to neurolinguistic programming or, in other words, tapping into the human brain. So much so, he’s now a staunch anti-psychic. “Don’t believe a word when they tell you about dead loved ones. There’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. Cold reading, hot reading. Stock reading. Rainbow reading. Barnum statements.”

“All these things are secret techniques to make it look like they’re contacting the other side. It’s all psychological manipulation,” he adds. He runs me through a routine. Before I know it, he’s penned me a letter from a deceased relative. I’m left gaping, but he assures me he certainly didn’t visit the other side. As I tuck the paper into my back pocket — well duped — Keith Barry bounds away into the lobby of the Brehon hotel.

A man on a mission.

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