PETER BROOK FEATURE
Bruce Myers (left) and Sotigul Kouyate (right) explore the tar reaches of the mind.
so great that nothing less than a Sanskrit epic or the finest works of Shakespeare will satisfy his restless curiosity. It is many years since he has produced anything so commonplace as a conventional modern drama; presumably by devising new work he feels he can go in directions that existing texts cannot take him. And it’s perhaps more than coincidence that Oliver Sacks in the introduction to The Man who Mistook his Wifefor a Hat should describe himself not only as a theorist. but also a ‘dramatist. equally drawn to the scientific and the romantic’. There may be no obvious dramatic structure to the book — rather it is a series of accessible but essentially scientific case-studies of patients with disparate brain disorders - bttt Sacks’s eager inquisitiveness. his refusal to accept orthodox thinking. his fascination with the unknown. puts him. as Brook suggests. on a par with that other great doctor, Anton Chekhov. ‘The work of a neurol- ogist,’ said Brook recently. ‘is to look at everyday behaviour and read something hidden through the unusual aspects of that behaviour. and that to me is the essence of theatre.’
Brook has been quick to describe The Man Who. . . not as a play in the traditional sense. but as ‘a piece of continuing research’. Exactly where that research will lead him is anybody’s guess. but for now we have a production that more than makes up for any lack of narrative drive — the kind of thing a playwright would have provided automatically — with perfor- mances of captivating intensity. The company will be familiar to regular Brook watchers in Scotland: David Bennent. first seen as the boy who wouldn’t grow old in The Tin Drum and then as Caliban in Brook’s 111 Tempete; Sotigul Kouyate the tall Malian who played Bhisma in The Mahabharata and Prospero in La Tempete: Yoshi Oida. the traditionally-trained Japanese actor who has been in just about everything; Mahmoud Tabrizi-Zadeh. the Iranian musician and sometime Peter Gabriel collaborator who provided the score for The Mahabharata and La Tempete; and Bruce Myers The Mahabharara‘s narrator and star of his own Edinburgh Fringe hit A Dybbuk for Two People.
Together they take turns as doctors and patients exploring the worlds of people who have lost the concept of right and left. who can talk for hours but only in a barrage of poetic
nonsense. who cease to recognise their own limbs, who have no memory ofthe last '25 years. who mistake their wife fora hat . . . Fans of the book will recognise many of the stories. stories that have been supplemented and modified by the company who spent five months in French hospitals, talking to neurologists. observing patients. so it could see with its own eyes what Sacks had reported. This level of commit- ment. the fact that it’s taken five years to create, coupled with the degree of still and centred concentration. creates a produc- tion that steers well clear of the dangers of creating either a freak-show or a succession of cute oddballs for our amusement. it certainly avoids the sentimen- tality that Sacks’s Awakenings suffered from in the Robert De Niro/Robin Williams movie of the same name. Not that Brook‘s show is not also funny. just that it’s performed in a spirit of genuine enquiry and a desire to show both the external and internal workings of people who are not so very different frorn ourselves.
‘When you confront someone who’s very gravely ill.’ says actor Bruce Myers when I meet him in Manchester after another sell-out performance of The Man Who . . .. ‘there‘s no danger of seeing anything but a human being.’ It was. however. only through painstaking
When Is a glove not a glove? Patlents unable to recognise everyday objects try to fathom what thls live-pocketed contalner could be.
‘I’ve always been rather alarmed by my own brain. I’ve always been ' frightened that it could do things I didn’t want it to do, it could think things I didn’t want it to think and feel things I really didn’t need to feel.’ - Bruce Myers
research that the company grew towards the much aspired for Brookian quality of ‘truth’. ‘In the very first improvisations, we did feel there was a danger of doing something wrong, even from the book.’ says Myers. ‘The truth only came much later when the observations were very specific indeed.’ Myers’ own research included attending a conference of the ‘Tickers Association’ in Houston, Texas, where he was welcomed by 250 sufferers from Tourette’s Syndrome. a condition, according to Sacks, that causes ‘tics. jerks. mannerisms, grimaces, noises, curses. involuntary imitations and compulsions of all sorts’.
For an actor, the particular problem with this material is that all the usual rules about getting to know your character’s inner life are turned on their heads when behavior is governed by inexplicable impulses. ‘In a certain way the Ticker is quite straight-forward,’ says Myers, ‘but the other characters, like the man whose memory’s gone. are extrememly mysterious. All that one can hope to do is watch and observe and get certain knowledge from books — you can imitate to a certain extent. You have to try to put all that together and try to find out what it means to have no memory and yet suddenly whizz back and say, “The circus! Yes, there was a circus here yesterday.” ’
At the same time as the material avoids exploitation, so too does it manage not to be depressing. There are very moving moments, but they are done in a spirit that side-steps despair. ‘lt’s extremely hard,’ says Myers about his research. ‘You go into a ward and you see people in a coma and very few of them will ever come out of it. You see the intense effort of the therapists to bring some glimmer. . . suddenly you see the eyes move and you wonder if that is the beginning of coming back out of the coma. It’s extremely hard, but at no time was it in that sense depressing.’
Perhaps not depressing, but the popularity of Sacks’s writing and indeed this show is in some way to do with our unease about these great organic computers we carry round with us. ‘l’ve always been rather alarmed by my own brain.‘ says Myers. ‘l’ve always been frightened that it could do things I didn’t want it to do. it could think things I didn’t want it to think and feel things 1 really didn’t need to feel. I‘ve often wondered where all that came from. I’ve always had the image that the brain was a strong thing to be careful of and that has been confirmed by the research — the real power of my own brain. On the other hand. it might drive us to some extraordinary level of awareness if we could only use it. And it’s a strange thing — even saying it now, what part of the brain is saying it?’
Myers insists that the stage is the perfect place to explore such an internal landscape thanks to the tremendous concentration that can be — and is — generated by a theatre full of people. As Brook himself said at a recent conference: ‘Having got into the auditorium, one has to have for a moment an experience that is different from the experience in the street and which makes one feel, for a second. that one is closer to the truth.’ D The Man Who . . Apr.
., Tramway, Glasgow, 12—23
The List 8-21 April I994 9