Soho Theatre + Writers' Centre, London W1
Opened 2 December, 2005

After his stint as artistic director of the Gate Theatre and then overseeing the National Theatre's Transformations season in 2002, Mick Gordon disappeared off British theatre's radar. Now he returns with a new company, On Theatre, a new work, On Ego, and a new dramatic-essayistic approach which seeks a way to delve into core aspects of human nature and to explain them both directly and by theatrical example.

On Ego begins with Elliot Levey as neurologist Alex lecturing us on the nature of identity: there is no seat of self, he contends, no ego as such, but rather the brain constructs the convincing illusion of a continuous "I" out of the bundles of stimuli available to it from moment to moment. Then the premise is given dramatic form, as a thought-experiment is acted out which has long bedevilled psychologists and SF writers alike. Alex teleports across the city to meet his wife for dinner; however, while the "delivery" part of the teleportation works perfectly, the "dispatch" at Point A fails. Consequently, there are now two physically and psychologically identical beings where once there was one. Which "is" the "real" Alex, and which the surplus to be destroyed? Does such destruction amount to killing, if Alex's identity continues to exist undiminished afterwards? Meanwhile, Alex's wife Alice is suffering from a brain tumour which is progressively eroding her vocabulary and afflicting her with the delusion that Alex has been replaced by an impostor. (Well, has he?)

Kate Miles copes excellently with Alice's volatile moods as she finds parts of her self flaking away; Robin Soans finds humour and ultimately pathos in the character of Alex's assistant and father-in-law. The sense of hybridity is bolstered by both the blend of material (a trait shared with the show's source of inspiration, Paul Broks' book Into The Silent Land) and a staging heavy on projections and light on physical props. Plainly not all theatre can or should be like this, but there is room for such a mode of presenting object lessons rather than working through more opaque metaphor. As for the argument of the 90-minute piece, I think it is significant that, although advancing the "bundle" position, it ends with poignant images of disintegration and self-sacrifice that only work because at root we are all ego-ists, believing in an "I" of our own.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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