On Ego

Mick Gordon

Mind Over Matter Theatre Collective

Studio Theatre, Department of Theatre, Film and Television, University of York

From 13 October 2016 to 14 October 2016

Review by James Ballands

Following its successful debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival earlier this year, Mind Over Matter Theatre Collective has brought its production of Mick Gordon’s acclaimed play On Ego (2005) to the University of York. No doubt this will have been a source of great pleasure and anxiety for the cast and crew, as they are all recent graduates from York’s Department of Theatre, Film and Television.

The mysteries of the human brain—particularly the connection between memory and identity—have provided creative inspiration for numerous playwrights in recent years, including Tom Stoppard (The Hard Problem, 2014) and Nick Payne (Elegy, 2016). First staged at the Soho Theatre in 2005, On Ego is largely inspired by the work of the neuropsychologist Paul Broks, whose acclaimed volume Into the Silent Land (2002) is a poetic meditation on the nature of the brain and the creation of the self.

The play’s intricate plot focuses on the entangled lives of three characters: two men and one woman. Alex (Oliver Henn), a neuroscientist in his mid-thirties, agrees with Francis Crick’s contention that “conscious experience is not caused by the behaviour of neurons, it is the behaviour of neurons.” Cleaving to this idea, Alex conducts experiments with his colleague Derek (Harry Whittaker), a professor in his late fifties, involving transporters capable of taking human beings apart and then reassembling them in other locations. However, much like David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), these experiments have tragic repercussions.

The third character in the drama is Alice (Yoshika Colwell)—Alex’s wife and Derek’s daughter—who is diagnosed with a brain tumour that slowly erodes her faculties. If selfhood relies on memories, then Alice is in danger of disappearing forever.

Although the three performers are in their early to mid-twenties, they manage to convincingly inhabit the roles of much older characters. Oliver Henn captures Alex’s intellectual bravado and is particularly effective in the play’s opening scene in which he delivers a lecture on the inner workings of the human brain. Yoshika Colwell gives a moving performance as Alex’s dying wife, particularly in the scenes where she falters with language. As Derek, Harry Whittaker provides much of the production’s levity.

Director Lauren Moakes deserves credit for creating such a slick, fast-moving production. Her assured direction allows the audience to follow the intricate narrative of Gordon’s play, although some audience members may lose the thread towards the end when the action becomes more ambiguous. Anna Mawn and Will Heyes’s simple yet effective set design—which consists principally of portable white screens—contributes to the fluidity of the piece, and Ella Dixon’s lighting design is suitably moody and atmospheric.

Amy Warren’s movement direction provides some of the production’s most dynamic moments and underlines the emotional trajectory of the characters. At one point, for example, the estrangement between Alex and Alice explodes into a violent tussle and then morphs into a piece of modern dance in which the latter tries desperately to escape her husband’s grip.

This is an impressively bold multimedia production, in which the use of film and music serve the overall purpose of the piece. Tom Leatherbarrow’s visual designs illuminate the intellectual questions of the play, and Scott J Hurley’s insinuating musical score complements the science fiction elements of the plot.

In its mission statement, Mind Over Matter stresses its commitment to creating theatre that “explores the connections between the emotional and the physical, and the body and the brain.” By turns thought-provoking and heart-wrenching, On Ego is an ambitious production that allows the young cast and crew to exhibit their diverse talents.