Paul Broks and Mick Gordon 'On Emotion'

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Time Out gets emotional with Paul Broks and Mick Gordon

  • Paul Broks and Mick Gordon 'On Emotion'

    Caroline Catz, Rhian Blythe, Mark Down and friend

  •  How do you feel? Or let’s put it a bit differently: how do you feel? For neuropsychologist Paul Broks, that’s the double-stranded question which is being asked and answered right now at the cutting edge of neuroscience. And he and his collaborator, playwright Mick Gordon, are about to put it on stage at Soho Theatre. ‘On Emotion’ is the first in a planned trilogy on what you could call the Big Three of the touchy-feely generation: emotion, empathy and happiness. It’s also the second theatrical collaboration between the two men (2005’s ‘On Ego’ explored the illusion of self-hood) and the sixth play in Gordon’s classy ‘On Theatre’ series of Montaigne-style essay-dramas.

    ‘How do we think?’ asks Gordon – a prematurely bald and preternaturally focused Northern Irishman who, judging by the way he speaks (in rapid bullet points), thinks very clearly indeed. ‘Do we think how we think we do, rationally? Or through a sneaky emotional apparatus we’re not conscious of?’ When it comes to emotion, it’s not only the playwrights and psychologists who are overflowing with unanswerable questions. And of course there’s a danger that, if you ask too many of them in an 80-minute chamber play, you’ll stimulate your audience’s brain at the expense of its heart. For ‘On Emotion’ though, the playwright and the psychologist have found one question which they can each ask with equal force: ‘Are we the puppets of our emotions?’

    In Broks’s book ‘Into the Silent Lands’ and his journalism (he writes like a more poetical, quizzical Oliver Sacks), he talks of people as ‘meat puppets’. The image of a human as a lump of meat, manipulated by unconscious motives (à la Freud) or the biochemical processes of the brain, is a striking one. And Gordon was quick to see its dramatic potential, especially after a conversation with Tom Morris (co-director of ‘War Horse’) which pointed him towards Blind Summit: ex-BAC Supported Artists and brilliant puppeteers.

    In Gordon’s past ‘On Theatre’ plays, he’s often given the leading character a job which helps flesh out the ideas: 2006’s ‘On Religion’ (co-authored by AC Grayling) featured an academic whose lectures sounded a lot like Richard Dawkins, while his last Broks collaboration ‘On Ego’ was helmed by a neurologist. ‘On Emotion’ duly has its brain professional – Stephen is a CBT therapist rather than a neurologist this time because, explains Broks, ‘that’s who you’re likely to see if you’re referred by the NHS’. But it has a theatremaker too: Anna, Stephen’s patient, makes puppets,  and it is the manipulation of those volitionless creations which will hopefully allow Gordon to bring Broks’s metaphor about the human condition to palpable theatrical life.

    ‘In “On Ego” we went from a lecture to an emotional journey,’ Gordon reflects, describing the format which has also been used with great clarity and intimacy by Complicite to make art out of science. ‘In this we’re more interested in counterpointing the ideas through character.’ Gordon’s collaborative approach means the script is not yet final but, apart from the puppets, its most potentially compelling set-piece is a scene which is seen twice in the play from two very different emotional angles. It is counterpoint, with all four characters (Stephen, his two children, and Anna) playing on very different ideas. But its crucial revelation is the strings which this play – or any play – tugs on to move the audience.

    Like life, theatre is lived in the first-person. And what excites Broks about it is that it starts where science, with its objective ambitions, leaves off. ‘There’s something about the human scale of the theatre particularly in this sort of smaller space which triggers immediate psychological reactions and empathic reactions.’ Indeed, in the next instalment of the trilogy (which will be told from the point of view of Stephen’s daughter, Lucy, and her off-stage lover) Broks and Gordon will be looking at an area of neuroscience which, excitingly, could help demonstrate why theatre can make us feel so strongly in the first place. ‘Mirror neurons respond to other people’s actions. If you reach for the mug, there’s a bit of me that’s reaching for it, too. I’m simulating your brain patterns. It’s the root of empathy. And you’re more likely to respond the closer someone is to you.’ It’s fascinating stuff: the physical process which makes you flinch when you see someone else trip – or literally feel their pain. For ‘On Emotion’ to be successful, Gordon and Broks will have to reach the parts that science cannot reach – but increasingly, neuro-science will be able to explain how they got there.

    ‘On Emotion’ is at Soho Theatre.

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