Friday , March 1 2024
Billed as a "theatre essay", the play succeeds in bringing together medicine and philosophy, performance and literature.

Theater Review: On Ego at the Soho Theatre

At the start of On Ego, the audience treated to a mini-lecture on the workings of the brain and the nature of consciousness, complete with slideshow, albeit a rather flasher one to be found in any university, and without (mercifully) a Powerpoint list in sight. It is delivered by Alex (Elliot Levey) who looks the classic young lecturer, from his not-quite-matching-brown corduroy “uniform” to his anxious, eager-to-please smile and over-rehearsed jokes.

His subject is interesting stuff, enlivened by a direction that must read something like “brain called Richard, enters stage left”. We learn that in “bundle theory”:

Each life is just a long series of interconnected sensations and thoughts. And the mental processes underlying our sense of self- feelings, thoughts, memories – are scattered through different zones of the brain. There is no special points of convergence. No central core. We come together in a work of fiction. Our brain is a story-telling machine. And the ‘self’ is the story.

But it is just at the point when the audience starts to shift on their buttocks, wondering “is this all?”, when the tone suddenly changes. You are asked: ‘If you believe this theory, would you mind being teleported, which involves the complete destruction of our current body, and its perfect recreation at the destination point?’ Alex is going to show that he does believe his own lecture by demonstrating.
[ADBLOCKHERE] Suddenly, On Ego is a sci-fi show-come-thought experiment. I don’t want to give away too much, but suffice to say that the operation of this Star Wars-style transporter goes wrong. And we find this all taking place within the framework of a very human, traditional drama.

Alex’s wife Alice (beautifully played by Kate Miles) sits before us in a hospital office, undergoing a series of simple tests that slowly demonstrate something is going very, very wrong in the functioning of her brain. They seem a perfect couple, and on their anniversary night, while going through a series of traditional rituals, they try to come to terms with the diagnosis that she has an inoperable brain tumour.

Alex and Derek

And it turns out that the man operating the teleporter on the fateful day was her father Derek (Robin Soans), a veteran of his own disaster from the early days of the technology. The two men – the young Turk and the veteran, pictured above, have, as you might expect, a difficult relationship, and they end up in what is, almost, a life and death struggle over the very philosophy that has brought them together..

From this point, On Ego is a traditional drama, albeit one that the audience views through a lens of the theory that came before. It is billed as a “theatre essay” – one of a series planned by the On Theatre company – and on this example this is an ambitious project that deserves to be applauded, for what this play succeeds in doing is bringing together medicine and philosophy, performance and literature. It provides a perfect riposte to those who like to claim there is an inevitable dumbing down of our society, for it is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

The script is described as being inspired by the well-reviewed memoir/meditation Into the Silent Land (excerpted here) by the neuropsychologist Paul Brok, who has worked on this script with the director Mick Gordan.

The three actors turn in fine performances that ensure their characters never descend to the level of “case study”, as they might so easily have done; the script, while unusual in structure, is highly effective. About the only cause for complaint is the lighting. While it is fine to get carried away with flashing teleporters, sometimes it manages to be a distraction when simple concentration on an actor’s face is all that is needed.

Nevertheless, this is a fine show, and one likely to fill the small Soho Theatre in central London for most of its run. I’d recommend dinner after, to allow time to hash over its themes. But you might want to avoid any restaurants that serve offal; lambs’ brains, even at the next table, might be a bit much.

On Ego continues until January 7. There’s an interview with the director posted.
Photo: Manuel Harlen

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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