HEAD/CASE
Soho Theatre + Writers' Centre, London W1
Opened 13 January, 2005
****

I have to write about Ron Hutchinson's Head/Case from the inside, in more respects than one. Reading up after the performance, I was surprised and shaken to see how much emphasis interpretations of the piece place upon national identity shaken because it ought to have been obvious, especially as the identities in question, Irishness and Englishness, are those of my own hybrid sense of self.

Tracy and Julia are in an institutional halfway house. As a result of head trauma, each is as it were psychologically incomplete. Northern Irish Tracy "yaks" non-stop as a way of filling the gap that exists in her sense of adult decorum; she suffers from "disinhibition", and so says and does exactly what her impulses suggest without any reining sense of what is and isn't acceptable amongst other people. English Julia finds it hard to speak in full sentences, but her primary condition is a complete lack of affect: she cannot really even understand what emotions are, never mind experience any. Each woman is a reductive portrait of her respective national stereotype.

This is where another aspect of my own "insider" experience arises. I suspect I failed to notice the national dimension in Hutchinson's piece because it's one which is blocked off in me; I deal with my own hybridity by excising that entire dimension of selfhood. What I responded to in Head/Case, therefore, was the individual rather than the ethnic aspect, because both the instances of personal searching shown seem natural to the point of instinctiveness. In Hutchinson's writing, and in Clare Colgan's and Sarah Cattle's performances, we are shown a kind of proceeding from first principles; each woman asks not just "Who am I?", but has first to acquire some sense of what it is that goes to make an "I".

This is where Tracy's particular search is dramatised by the ambivalent presence of imaginary friend Jimmy (Jonjo O'Neill). At first he seems to offer her wise counsel, but he also tries to goad her towards suicide, and in the end both we and she recognise that Jimmy is a repository of national stereotypes, a kind of identity-crutch that needs to be discarded. Caroline Hunt's production from the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry rightly drew warm reviews last autumn in Stratford; it now heralds the arrival in London over the coming weeks of most of the rest of the Royal Shakespeare Company's first New Work Festival, under whose aegis it was first seen.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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