A meeting of minds

Two women with brain injuries struggle to become friends
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The Independent Culture

Actors and directors are often urged to "get inside the head" of their characters. In Head/Case, a play by Ron Hutchinson, this task is made more difficult than usual since the two main characters have brain injuries and are struggling to regain a sense of their own personalities. Head/Case had its premiere at the Swan Theatre in October, as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's New Work Festival, and now comes to Soho Theatre in London.

Actors and directors are often urged to "get inside the head" of their characters. In Head/Case, a play by Ron Hutchinson, this task is made more difficult than usual since the two main characters have brain injuries and are struggling to regain a sense of their own personalities. Head/Case had its premiere at the Swan Theatre in October, as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's New Work Festival, and now comes to Soho Theatre in London.

The play is an intimate exploration of two women's damaged psyches. Tracy is from Northern Ireland and has been caught in the crossfire of sectarian violence. As a result of her injuries, she is unable to stop talking and suffers from "disinhibition", leaving her prone to violent outbursts and inappropriate behaviour. At the other end of the scale is Julia, who sustained brain damage in a car crash and now cannot complete a sentence or engage in any kind of emotion.

Caroline Hunter, the director of Head/Case, sees the play as a complex treatment of the nature of self: "The play is about trying to find personal identity. When you have a brain injury you have no sense of who you were previously and therefore you have to reinvent yourself."

It is a tricky play to direct, not least because of the strange speech patterns that characterise the two women's con- versations. The challenge lies in trying to build up a rapport between Tracy (Claire Cogan) and Julia (Sarah Cattle). "These two women are trying to make a connection and form a friendship. The play is about the struggle they have to find this friendship. One cannot express emotion and the other does it too much."

The abstract core of the play is given some context by setting it in Northern Ireland. "It's an allegory for Ireland itself," Hunter explains. "Ireland is leaving a phase of historical grievance and is now trying to rediscover a new identity. It's not only about personal identity, it's about national identity."

Tracy and Julia's attempt at friendship can be seen as representative of the new relations between Northern Ireland and the rest of the world: "The inside of a brain is a bit like a street map, with lots of neural pathways. People have been going down the same pathways for years and years and they have their no-go areas. They have to find new connections."

Hunter has worked closely with Hutchinson, going through six or seven drafts with the actors. Head/Case began life as a monologue, which became shared between two women over the course of the workshops. In the light of this, Hunter's description of Tracy and Julia as "two halves of one head" makes perfect sense.

Although Head/Case covers a difficult subject, Hunter praises the "tremendous warmth" of the play: "It is abstract... but also very funny at times. If it works well, it can swing the audience from quite a challenging emotional charge to something that makes them laugh."

'Head/Case', Soho Theatre, London W1 (0870 429 6883; www.sohotheatre.com) 12 to 29 January

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