On Emotion

Mick Gordon and Paul Broks
On Theatre
Soho Theatre

Production photo

Director and playwright Mick Gordon's On Theatre has already given us 'theatre essays,' as he calls them, on death, love and religion and now he turns his attention to emotion in this play co-written with neuropsychologist Paul Broks. In it, cognitive behavioural therapist Stephen, played by James Wilby, is working on a lecture on emotions from which he rehearses various sections throughout the play, enabling the audience to share in some of his professional knowledge: he tells us for instance that emotion is "in one sense no more than a co-ordinated pattern of changes in behaviour and bodily function: different configurations of the facial musculature." He lists six from the repertoire of human emotions: fear, anger, sadness, joy, surprise and disgust - with disgust, which becomes a controlling limiter of behaviour, the one emotion that has to be learned.

Stephen (and this play) asks whether we are just the puppets of our emotions: "pulled and pushed by forces we can't control" but posits that if we understand the mechanisms of emotion we can control them. Quoting Shakespeare's "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so," he claims it anticipates cognitive behaviour therapy by four centuries!

The other characters are Stephen's autistic son Mark (Mark Down) and daughter Lucy (Rhian Blythe), an aspiring actress currently rehearsing Rosalind in As You Like It, and Lucy's friend Anna who has become Stephen's patient. The play uses them as tools to demonstrate emotion and its control and there is no sense of them having any existence outside the play itself, though that is no fault of the actors.

Stephen's profession is to untangle the emotional complexities of his patients but he finds himself being driven by lustful feelings for Anna, while Anna's life is being ruined by the guilt she feels for the foetus she miscarried while planning to have an abortion. Lucy, unable to sort out deep feelings from sexual gratification, is equally unable to understand any of the emotion that drives Rosalind (at must be awful challenge to an actress to have to deliver these lines so badly!) and Mark is unable to feel emotion. His world is controlled by rules rather than feelings, and by a fascination with the heavens and Star Trek, while his habitual repeating of everything he overhears (including his father's vocalisations while masturbating to a fantasy Anna which we have already witnessed) becomes a device for triggering what little plot there is.

It is a play that seems to promise much more than it delivers. It offers an essay in the verbal sense of to attempt or try out, for it only begins to open up the subject. Whilst the facts it gives us may be interesting, what holds our attention for 90 minutes are Gordon's directorial skills, drawing heavily on the puppetry work of Blind Summit (of which Mark Down is co-founder) who are credited as associate producers. The manipulation of Mark's puppet alter ego is clearly intended as a theatrical expression of the human puppet controlled by his emotions - but it is something of a paradox when Mark is the one character who lacks emotion. Though visually effective and what one will remember from this production, while the text may tend to argue that thought can control emotions this dramatises the opposite contention but as a parallel concept and the idea of puppet maker Anna creating this image of Mark is a quite arbitrary addition to the plot.

Until 20th December 2008

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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