Written by Hannah Barker, Lewis Hetherington and Liam Jarvis, and devised by the company
Analogue, Oldenburgisches Staatstheater and New Wolsey Theatre
Analogue's latest multimedia piece is based on the true story of Henry Molaison, who possessed a rare brain disorder that made him one of the twentieth century's most important test patients for neurological research. In 1955, when Henry was nearly 30, he underwent an operation which would attempt to cure his severe epilepsy by drilling into his skull and removing his hippocampi, two identical small seahorse-shaped parts of his brain. These were believed to be the source of his epileptic fits; in fact, through Henry it was discovered that these sections of the brain are absolutely key to memory: they are the "printing press" where information is sent to be recorded by the brain.
For this show we are in the pleasant company of Dr Jacopo Annese, who speaks to us directly through audio recordings - "I have been asked by Analogue to make this recording…" - and indirectly through an actor who assumes the part of Annese. Annese describes what Henry has meant to scientific research - he is what they call a "pure" subject, whose memory disorder is so complete and so clearly linked to the loss of his hippocampi.
And we follow Henry at different stages of his life. Before the operation, in his late twenties he was still living with his parents as his epilepsy made him require constant care; there are some nice domestic sequences, and a fun gag about the girl next door asking Henry if she can borrow a Russian book, provoking Henry's parents to wonder if she might be a commie (this is early 50s America after all). And then we see what the operation has done to him, and fast-forward to near the end of his life, where nothing has changed. He still thinks he's in his 20s; he can't retain information for more than a few seconds; every conversation with him involves constant repetition and starting from the beginning.
After Henry's death, in 2009 Dr Annese filmed a live web broadcast in which he dissected Henry's brain, cutting it into exactly 2401 pieces. From this it was possible to create a 3D digital map of his brain, of immense use to future researchers.
What's very good about this piece is that, while Annese is clearly excited by the scientific advances made possible by the fact of Henry, he's also sensitive to the poor bloody tragedy of Henry's situation. Henry as an old man can't recognise himself as no longer being young; he can't remember that his mother died years ago; sometimes he demands to see her. Annese describes the surgeon who operated on Henry in 1955 as a flamboyant man, with a love of fast cars, who performed the operation with tools he bought from a hardware store and was quite proud of this fact. You can hear the regret in Annese's voice when he describes how this man's actions have "makes archaeologists of us all - have left us with this artefact".
The video projection in the show is not quite as audacious and integral as in the company's previous work Beachy Head; largely it's used to set scenes, but there is one very good sequence where a film of the airplane meal Annese is eating suddenly surreally contains an image that links back to Henry.
The large projection screen also serves as a divider of scenes: it's slid back and forward constantly, and the actors duck under it as it comes forward, ending each scene. It's an effective design, conjuring a sense of time powering forward and cutting things off before their time; a massive scythe of history cuts Henry off from the man he was and the life he had pre-operation.
A very moving show, nicely rounded off by Annese's simple statement at the end, that our own brains have been altered by watching it for the last hour; "there's been a lot of change, neurologically speaking". Not often that you get a scientific analysis of your own brain state to go away with. Excellent stuff.
Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury