Soho Theatre + Writers' Centre, London W1
Opened 12 November, 2008

Mick Gordon’s company On Theatre continues to stimulate and provoke with its dramatic essays-cum-parables on divers aspects of what it is to be human. The topic of emotion takes the company closer to the territory of its 2005 debut On Ego (written in collaboration, like this piece, with neuropsychologist Paul Broks), but it feels (ha!) rather more uncertain.
The opening moments of Gordon’s production, parodying the Star Trek title sequence, suggest that we may be about to tread the path of Spock and consider a Vulcan-style unemotionalism. In fact, we shift to a more modish take on the matter, that of cognitive behavioural therapy. Stephen, a CBT practitioner, is writing a lecture – thus enabling actor James Wilby to deliver material straight to us – as well as dealing with his Aspergic son Mark and his actress daughter’s best friend, puppeteer Anna. The fundamental question of the piece is “Are we just the puppets of our emotions?”, but its dramatic realisation is rather overdone as bunraku-style figures come to stand as surrogates for Mark, for Anna’s lost unborn child, for Stephen in his professionally unethical feelings towards Anna and so on.
Gordon and Broks enjoy provoking emotional knee-jerks from us, particularly various shades of disgust, before interrogating us on the extent to which our responses are reasoned as opposed to reflexively felt. It’s a useful way of working, since the basic personifications feel (that word again) a little too schematic: one person, Mark, who does not understand or properly experience emotion; one, Anna, who is prey to bursts of uncontrollable feeling for reasons unknown to her; one, Stephen’s daughter Lucy, whose job as an actor is to fake emotion but who feels too much offstage; and Stephen. In his person the writers try to be thoughtful yet moderate, by suggesting that CBT is one of the most practical ways we currently have to approach such matters but also refraining from giving the shrink all the answers. It is a more successful attempt to square this circle than was the doctrinaire atheism of the protagonist of the company’s last work On Religion, but it doesn’t quite work this time either. Still, the point is not to pretend to have answers, but to identify and animate the questions, and in that the company succeed.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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