THEATRE / The powerlessness of mind over matter: Paul Taylor reviews Peter Brook's production of The Man Who . . . at the Contact Theatre, Manchester

A former US president used to be the butt of a cheap gag that claimed he couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time. Since this was meant to reflect on his IQ rather than on his brain condition, the Gerald Ford Syndrome is not one that is recognised by neurology. But, suppose that you were highly intelligent and yet could not walk and hold a cup at the same time, having lost all ability to move except by staring fixedly at the part of the body you wished to shift. Suppose, too, that there was no guarantee from one day to the next that you would be able to achieve even this, so that nothing remained as a habit, but had to be daily relearned as tricks and stratagems in a humiliating and exhausting mental marathon.

This is one of the cases brought, powerfully and respectfully, to our attention in the new Peter Brook production The Man Who . . . which is based on Oliver Sacks' Eighties bestseller The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. The case-study in the title (of a doctor of music who developed visual agnosia and couldn't recognise everyday objects) has already inspired a chamber-opera by Michael Nyman which self- reflexively fixes on the fact that, as Dr P's world disintegrated around him, music became his life-line, erstwhile automatic activities like dressing and washing having to be negotiated now along the track of a song.

The piece that Brook and his team have fashioned ranges more widely through those neurological disorders which, in removing something we take for granted, give us a new, defamiliarising access into the mysteries of what it is to be a person. And, though it's a true work of art, The Man Who . . . is not as concerned as the opera to convert its subject into an artwork. One way of defining its humane excellence is to ask what advantages it has over, say, a television documentary that filmed the actual sufferers in their home and hospital environments.

Purity of focus and a refusal to exploit the 'freak show' aspects would be high on the list. Played on a blond wooden square with just a few white chairs, a video camera and a couple of monitors, the piece rinses its material clean of all redundancy. The multi-ethnic male cast of four, continually exchanging white coats for pyjama tops, play people on both sides of the chasm which has the effect of dampening the them / us reflex.' People don't want to know us, but we're in fashion,' complains the eruptive, tic-ridden sufferer from Tourette's Syndrome, causing you to feel a salutory twinge of shame.

With a chaste, mostly percussive accompaniment from a lone musician at the side, the piece combines playfulness and sadness, alive to the fact that these conditions are both funny and no joke. The tact with which it handles people who have lost all right- field vision and only shave one side of their face, or who think that they have their mother's arm in bed with them, is too understated to be described as 'exquisite'. It is a thing of beauty none the less.

Particularly painful are the moments when those sufferers who are, by definition, oblivious to their condition are made aware of it through technological means, like video feedback. A man listens to the recording of himself reading Gray's Elegy and, recognising it as gobbledigook, breaks down in tears, tries to affect appreciativeness for his rendition, fails and breaks down again. In its sincerity and its restraint, The Man Who . . . is the triumphant antithesis to the Oprah Winfrey approach to human suffering.

'The Man Who . . .' continues at the Contact Theatre until 26 March (061-274 4422); then tours to the Newcastle Playhouse (29 March-9 April), Glasgow Tramway (12-23 April), Nottingham Playhouse (26- 30 April) and London, National Theatre (4-21 May)

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

    Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

    After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
    The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
    10 best sun creams for kids

    10 best sun creams for kids

    Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
    Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

    Tate Sensorium

    New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
    Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
    Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

    Remember Ashton Agar?

    The No 11 that nearly toppled England
    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks