“Who are you?” If I asked you that, what would you tell me? What would you represent yourself with? You might answer with a few choice words that our parents jumble together to make a forename and a surname – the human excuse for a genus and specific epithet. You might offer a few stock phrases that sketch the faintest outline of your personality: “outgoing”, “chatty”, “shy”, “sporty”, “musical”. But the thing is, neither of these revelations seem satisfactory: they provide mere post-it notes. Such description isn’t really adhesive on a personal level. There is almost certainly someone else who can lay claim to the same name and matching characteristics. What you’ve told me doesn’t prove anything. It scarcely reveals who, or indeed, what you are. Because really, on a physical level, we’re just the conglomeration of myriad atomic and sub-atomic structures; a huge mash of skin, bone and brain cell. So what about the soul – what about the “you”? (Enter) Michael Gordon’s play On Ego.
It all seems a bit ‘deep’ and high up in the sphere where philosophy and science do battle. I’m sat in the Black Box Theatre with the cast and directors of On Ego where, needless to say, there is many a head being scratched – mine included. Perhaps this is not surprising when you consider that the inspiration for the play was the book Into The Silent Land by neuropsychologist, Paul Broks. But don’t be put off by the big questions because the play revolves around the relationship of Alex and Alice; husband and wife; lecturer and interior designer. And aside from this couple there is only Derek: Alice’s father and Alex’s senior colleague with the position of professor. So as far the dramatis personae is concerned, there’s little to get your head around. This conveniently leaves the stage free for the host of thoughts and ideas that populate the play; reverberating about the theatre and ricocheting off the walls of your mind.
We’re gathered around with Jason Ryall (co-director) who’s giving me a taste of the play. After choosing his words, Ryall describes how On Ego doesn’t necessarily give any answers but pokes and ponders many questions – questions regarding identity, existence and perspective. It’s a play which, in Ryall’s words, “makes you look at the mirror a bit differently” after you’ve experienced it. The grunts of affirmation seem to confirm this statement. Despite this, the play is not dense in itself and Yoshika Issabella Colwell (Alice) tells me “I don’t think I’ve ever read a play that encapsulates the way a couple communicates with each other so perfectly.” So among the bundle-theories and ego-theories there are the glimmers of people in this play. Indeed, it seems that On Ego is not a ‘scientific essay on the stage’ but rather a sort of scalpel, used to expose the deeper issues at hand. It’s not designed to tell you what to think: it’s designed to make you think. As we leave for lunch we’re all a bit frazzled and in a mirror I see faint whisps of smoke emitting from my ears. The mechanics of the play are already getting underway.
Returning from lunch, replenished and ready to tackle our existence once again, I’m introduced to a few other members of the team: Lauren Moakes (co-director) and composer Scott Hurley. That’s right TFTV’s On Ego has its own original score. While Colwell and Oliver-Patrick Henn (Alex) practise a scene with Movement Director Amy Warren, I appreciate the importance of choreographed movement and symmetrical body language in the realisation of this play. Around this, Hurley moulds his accompaniment so that a restaurant scene is complete with the backdrop of the sort of jazz piano you’d expect in a swanky establishment – clean and refined. Moakes is smiling: the words on the page have started to take on a third dimension and the scenes are coming together nicely. For all the various movements and gestures to remember, the scenes are moving with fluidity – as if the actions themselves were unconscious.
Having spent a few hours with the team, soaking it all up, I can’t wait for the finished product. There’s a buzzing optimism surrounding the production as a whole – centring on the script itself. The exploration of ‘I’ is not something that passively glides by; On Ego is as much an interrogation of the audience as it is an investigation of the characters. Sometimes the best theatre is that which gets us to stop, stand back, and take a good look at ourselves. As I quit the rehearsal studio, I know that the play is already on my mind: I can’t help thinking “the person that just smiled, waved, and left the room – was that me?” When I take my seat for real next Thursday maybe I’ll find out.