On 4 December 2009, Henry Molaison’s brain was divided into 2401 slivers of grey matter. Fifty-five years before, in a bid to cure his epilepsy, doctors surgically removed his hippocampus, the section of the brain responsible for the locking experience into memory, making Molaison the most perfect amnesiac in history. Or, as Lewis Hetherington’s elegant text puts it, ‘one of the most important brains in the world’.
Theatrical explorations of memory are often fragmented and scruffy, padding around the subject rather than pinpointing the core. Molaison’s case, told by crossfading between his life before and after the operation, allows Analogue to approach a prevalent subject with a rare neatness.
Sebastian Lawson plays Molaison pre-op, a nervy 30-year-old socially debilitated by epilepsy. Still living with his parents in the land of white picket fences, he struggles to romance the classic girl-next-door for fear of fitting in front of her. His older-self, played by Pieter Lawman, sits in an institution completing crosswords he can’t remember starting. The way Lawman looks up at his attendant nurse, his gaze benign but empty, unaware even of his condition, is gently heartbreaking. As is the patience with which she treats him, constantly repeating herself without a flicker of frustration.
There is a tendency for repetition, with Lawman’s scenes hammering home the same point with diminishing returns, as if suffering memory loss by proxy. Yet it’s staged with real grace, employing a mobile gauze almost as a three-dimensional etch-a-sketch, erasing characters and furniture as easily as it seems to print them into existence. It’s a beautiful echo of Molaison’s mind, as the present slips in and out of focus, fluid and ungraspable. Memories that should have been seem hazy behind it, looking on like unseen ghosts.
Since breaking through in 2007 with the Total Theatre-nominated Mile End, Analogue have built a reputation for their slick and inventive use of multimedia. Here it is used sparingly, mostly projecting backdrops to locate action, some of which melt as in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Curiously, that’s simultaneously too much and too little, neither meeting the technology’s potential, nor strictly necessary for the show. It’s like a Ferrari owner sticking to the slow lane while popping to the corner shop. Use it or lose it, basically.
Personally, I’d opt for the latter, since Analogue achieve almost all they want in a single moment that has us close our eyes, hands on our head, and imagine life without our hippocampi. It has all the empathy and intrigue with which they handle Molaison’s story and shows an increasingly exceptional young company refining its practice.