Theatre: A tale of two hemispheres

Click to follow
IF SCIENCE is to shake off its remote and sometimes rather sinister image, the mysteries being unscrambled by those strange men in white coats need to be made understandable to those of us who cannot tell an erg from an axon.

With this in mind, the Calouste Gulbekian Foundation and the Wellcome Trust set off in search of the philosopher's stone which would turn the lead of scientific fact into the gold of audience-friendly entertainment. The outcome is a synthesis of absurdist performance art and in-depth neurophysiology which exceeds the fantasies of even the most deranged of mad scientists.

The alchemists for this hellish brew are Forkbeard Fantasy, the West Country company who are to mainstream theatre what Dr Frankenstein was to the peer review process. The Brain makes full use of the devices for which Forkbeard Fantasy has become famous: the interaction between film and live action, the use of animation, and a healthy dose of theatre of the absurd. The epic voyage of Dr Bucephalus Grimes (Chris Britton) through the jungle of his own neurones and memories is alternatingly funny, disconcerting and downright weird.

Amidst all this theatrical madness, the performance never loses sight of its didactic role, even if the surrealistic side sometimes tries to seize control ("The brain is like a picnic where all the ants bring their own sandwiches"). Both hemispheres are vigorously stimulated, although neural gridlock is an ever-present risk. The Brain is the nearest most of us will get to the experience of trying to watch an Open University programme on LSD. This is Neuroscience Module I directed by Terry Gilliam.

At times there is a clear conflict between the art of the performance and the educational mission. Some of the scientific discourse slides in smoothly, but other snippets are dropped into the narrative as big, near-indigestible lumps that should have Jennifer Aniston warning punters: "Here comes the science bit."

Those with little grasp of scientific niceties may well come away confused, left mainly with a handful of the kind of amusing facts which scientists wheel out at cocktail parties to make themselves more interesting ("The odorant from dog faeces has a quite pleasant floral smell at lower concentrations, and is used in the making of some cheap perfumes").

It is the "science bits" which make The Brain less of a potential crowd- pleaser than its incredibly successful predecessors, The Fall of the House of Usherettes and The Barbers of Surreal, both of which stuck more closely to Forkbeard's artistic domain. On the other hand, The Brain does have something which few other plays have: boffin appeal. While it may not entirely succeed in bringing science to the arty, at least this production can bring art to the scientists. Theatre patrons rarely include dishevelled men dressed in tweed jackets reeking of chemicals. Perhaps The Brain will persuade more of them to forsake the lab for the stalls.

Toby O'Connor Morse

`The Brain' will be touring nationwide until April 2000