Michael Hill and TheimaGen @ Hartley Playhouse
1:00pm, Thu 11 Mar 2010
After dashing through the unfamiliar Magill Campus to find the Hartley Playhouse, I arrive just as the house lights have been dropped and stumble my way to a seat. I realise, in the inky blackness of the theatre, that I have no idea what this show is about, other than I picked it because its title just screamed “pretentious”.
The set is… unique. The generic room in the centre of the stage is fronted by a thin screen; largely translucent to the audience, but capable of displaying a projection and creating an almost holographic effect. Other images and movies are shone onto the floor and walls of the room; this is very much a technology-assisted performance.
Initially, On Ego feels like a lecture; a man appears amidst a series of projections and talks about the premise of the self, of the ego. “This is Richard,” he announces, lifting a brain out of a bucket – then dropping it back in with a existential plop. One of the projections changes to a live video feed of the head of neurologist Alex (Michael Hill); we can see him through a window in the set, and there’s a slight delay in the video feed – it’s slightly unnerving as a result.
And so we are introduced to the “bundle” theory of consciousness, whereby the arrangement of neurons themselves constitute experience. Thus, the idea of teleportation poses no problem; the issue of reconstituting the “soul” becomes irrelevant. And, with that fascinating and relatively level-headed and passive view of scientific basis established, we move on to the more… theatrical part of the performance.
Alex and Derek are colleagues working in the field of neurology and teleportation; Alex is married to Alice, Derek’s daughter. Alice is, unfortunately, suffering from an inoperable brain tumour, which affects her memories – she will often forget words, or unknowingly substitute inappropriate words. Her condition worsens over the course of the play, to the point where she no longer recognises her husband…
…and there’s the twist. During one of their teleportation experiments, Derek fails to vapourise the “original” Alex, hence leading to a continuity problem – one consciousness now has two realities. Each of the Alexes believe they are the “real” one – after all, how can they tell themselves apart? – and Alice deteriorates to the point where she can no longer recognise Alex… but is that because it was the “wrong” Alex?
On Ego is certainly an intriguing proposition. With a clever approach to the idea of self, as well as its mix of perfunctory theory and emotional structure (the piece is regarded by the authors as a “theatre essay”), this should have been engaging from start to finish… indeed, when Alice starts disassociating items, some little emotional chord in me was struck – I’m terrified by that sort of stuff. The problem, for me, comes later in the performance; when Alice’s decline accelerates, and the dual-Alex near-farce is played out, the story somehow loses its intellectual and emotional impact. The final act is horrible, a real drain, and leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.
Which is a shame, really, because the ideas initially expressed are really interesting, and the physical elements of the piece (set, projections, acting) are fantastic. It just loses its connection with me in the final third.