A key figure in the cabaret and variety revival, Mat has performed by Royal command on more than one occasion, headlined and hosted shows across the UK, and regularly appears further afield, including appearances in gala shows on stage and television the world over, and regular invitations to perform in such iconic venues as the Royal Albert Hall, The Savoy Hotel, and Hollywood’s Magic Castle. His groundbreaking work merges verbal and physical comedy, storytelling, dance, and of course, his trademark spectacular feats of dexterity.
Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel?
My wife just told me about Brent Geese. I live by the seaside, and there’s a patch of estuary where, at exactly the same time every year, huge flocks of geese arrive. From Siberia. They fly two and a half thousand miles from the bloody arctic circle, to precisely the same small patch of British seaside. My wife was on the train, and thought to herself, “This is about the time of year the geese arrive”, looked out the window, and there they were, literally arriving, circling the finish of their insanely dangerous and exhausting trip. Family groups continually threatened by everything from predators to climate change, the same actual families of birds return to the same estuary year after year, a sanctuary from the certain death that would have come if they had stayed where they were. It reminded me that the world is full of mostly unseen patterns and systems, and the more of them you see, the better you understand those that inhabit them. That birds, and people too, often have to put their lives on the line to escape unimaginable hardships to find a place where their families might be a little safer. And that to understand a goose, or a person, its smart to understand their journeys.
How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? How do they relate to one another?
Wonder is one of those words that seems, in current language, to perhaps be intrinsically linked to naivete. “Childlike wonder”, right? That’s a shame – there’s no fun in being an adult so cynical and sure that they’ve seen it all, that they can’t be open to experiencing some genuine wonder every so often. As for awe, well, it’s a little less attached to positivity. Bad things can inspire as much awe as good things can. It almost seems to be a description of scale rather than quality.
Curiosity, though, that’s the important one. It’s hard to go through life stupid, or uninspired, or bored, if you’re curious. Curiosity is the first step in knowledge, nourishment and adventure.
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
I guess it takes a moderately well developed sense of self, to truly understand how tiny one is in the great scheme of things. To be able to realise how much stuff is out there. Spin yourself around, point yourself in a direction and open your eyes and mind and start walking, and wonder will hit you in the face pretty quick.
Can you tell me the journey that led you to becoming the gentleman juggler?
For the first couple of years of my performing life, I was a bog standard juggler, but I’ve always been a nerd – the son of two librarians, I am – so I was always interested in the history of my artform. I spent a week in the Westminster Library pouring over old archives of The Strand magazine, which was a kind of Victorian version of Time Out. It was where the Sherlock Holmes stories were first published, but of more importance to me, was that when a notable music hall act would come to town, they’d review it. So if you were prepared to put in the work – and I was – you’d get a glimpse into long-forgotten versions of things like jugglers. For me, the modern version of juggling is pretty dull and limiting, there used to be so many creative ways that performers presented this artform. As soon as I read about the gentlemen jugglers – smooth, witty, dapper fellows who performed feats of dexterity with the accoutrements of the gentleman – I knew I’d found both a way for my act to stand out from the crowd, and a way for me to grow into the man I wanted to be. I’d found something meaningful to me.
Your latest show “Mat Ricardo vs the world” started with a bet. Can you tell me more about the concept and what you learned whilst preparing? How do you go about developing a new trick or routine?
Started simple, got complicated pretty quick! I released a video online, in which I challenged everyone in the world to try to suggest tricks, or skills, that they thought I wouldn’t be able to learn. I picked the best ones, learned as many as I could in one year, and made a show out of that journey. At least that was the plan – it ended up being a little more personal than I’d planned. During the creation of the show, I realised that my various mental illnesses (anxiety disorder, depression, OCD) were soothed by me being kept busy with fairly meaningless tasks – like trying to learn a bunch of things suggested by strangers. It dawned on me that this was something that I’d been doing, without really realising it, for most of my career. I’d always been someone whose comfort zone was solitary learning, and through the making of “Vs The World”, I examined that process.
As for how I go about learning a new trick – it’s a combination of the sharp thrill of having an idea for something nobody has done before, closely followed by the realisation that you’ve just sentenced yourself to weeks or months of incredibly boring practice, before the film playing in your head becomes reality. But man, that first time a trick works – the first time, perhaps, that a specific trick has ever been done? That’s a nice feeling.
One of my favourite quotes is by GK Chesterton “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders” What are your thoughts on this? Why is variety so important to you?
Variety is the bedrock of virtually all forms of modern live entertainment. From stand-up comedy, to professional wrestling, to sketch comedy, magic… All subsets of variety. From an audiences point of view, a show that truly has something for everyone is a rare and precious commodity. From an artistic angle, it’s so much healthier. A show featuring a bunch of acts all performing versions of the same discipline isn’t going to make any of those acts any more interesting, but in a truly mixed bill, everyone learns from each other. There are elements of my performing style inspired by comedians, dancers, burlesque performers, magicians, wrestlers, mime artists, circus clowns, martial artists.. all people I’ve stood in the wings watching, and who’s uniqueness has rubbed off on me, just as mine has on them. That’s how you create memorable, interesting art.
Having heard you speak and perform a few times, you have an interesting relationship with magic and magicians. What is magic missing?
I love good magic, but, perhaps like modern stand-up, there’s an awful lot of people doing it, and it’s something that’s fairly easy to do boringly, but competently. My own opinion is that when a creative industry is based, at least in part, on being able to walk into a shop and literally buy an act, it’s very easy for it to become less and less creative. I think magic is missing, well, magic – the feeling of someone being able to do something genuinely otherworldly. Paul Daniels once told me that a magic show is “..a play about someone who can do anything.” When you’re able to do a trick, it’s easy to think that’s your work finished, when in fact, it’s just begun. The trick is just the actor learning their lines. Now you have to find character, motivation, context, so that you can perform that play about someone who can do anything, and your audience, momentarily, will believe it.
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