Mick Gordon: The ego has landed

Mick Gordon's return to the theatre is an exploration of human consciousness. Paul Taylor meets an accomplished director who has always known his own mind

The director Mick Gordon says that he has gone through a period of "soul-searching" and wryly concedes that this sounds a mite ironic in the current circumstances. For On Ego, his first show in England since 2002, explores the implications of the scientific claim that our sense of having even a self - let alone a soul - is a fiction relayed to us by that inveterate story-telling machine, the brain. Gordon developed and wrote the piece in collaboration with a neuropsychologist, Paul Broks, whose poetic and powerfully suggestive book Into the Silent Land is a miscellany of real-life case studies, intimate personal confidences, sci-fi scenarios, and philosophical reflections that muse - in the tradition of Oliver Sacks - on what neurological damage can tell us about the brain-processes which construct the experience of personal identity, and on the vexed issue of whether the mystery of consciousness (how "meat becomes mind") can ever be solved.

When I first met Gordon seven years ago, it was clear that here was a young man who was going to go very far, very fast. Even the premature baldness of this Northern Irish charmer seemed to be part and parcel of a general aura of focused precocity and swift intent. He presided over a golden era as artistic director of London's Gate Theatre. A close protégé of Peter Brook, he was snapped up by another luminary, Peter Hall, to work alongside him on the vast Tantalus cycle in Denver (a project from which Gordon beat an early retreat, professionally unscathed). Trevor Nunn then welcomed him aboard to lead the National's Transformation season, producing a more youth-conscious programme for the reconfigured Lyttelton and the new (though temporary) Loft space. That accomplished, Gordon seemed suddenly to fall off the radar. Where has he been, and why?

"I'd got to the point," he tells me, after a morning's rehearsal, "where the next logical move was to run a theatre again, but I thought that if I did that I would just be doing what was expected of me. I needed to ask myself what kind of work I wanted to make and what authorial responsibility would be mine. So I basically took a leaf out of Peter Brook's book, and travelled." He has been on long, investigative assignments in Uzbekistan, Lithuania, and Uganda, interspersed with wallet-replenishing stints in Stockholm, where he has directed Pinter, Stoppard and a new, piquantly trilingual and tragicomic piece by Nick Grosso, A Play in English, Swedish and Italian, about the media and Sven-Goran Eriksson's various amatory entanglements.

"I chose places where theatre directors have a very clear sense of what they are doing their work for. In Uzbekistan, for example, there are no civil or human rights and the Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent is a place of freedom through metaphor and poetry and imagination. They have a brilliant complicity with their audience." At the Gate, Gordon had experimented with devised pieces, such as Intimate Death, a beautifully judged meditation on dying as a process of discovery, inspired by the writings of Marie de Hennezel, the chief psychologist at a Parisian palliative care unit for the terminally ill.

After the Transformation season, Gordon was invited to re-develop another of these Gate shows, Love's Work, in Tashkent. Uzbekistan didn't know what had hit it, as teams of interviewers, armed with Dictaphones, combed its regions, approaching total strangers for their personal stories. Five hundred of these were collected and staged in On Love, a collage of testimonies that offered multiple perspectives on the subject and was an inherently subversive gesture in so repressed a country. The piece is regularly updated. "It's my longest-running show to date," smiles the director.

This exercise resulted in the desire to found his new company On Theatre as "a vehicle that would use the tools of the medium and its human scale to create Montaigne-type essays - in both senses of the word: reflections and attempts". Gordon certainly can't be accused of jumping in at the shallow end with On Ego and its ponderings on the conundrum of consciousness and personal identity.

In Into the Silent Land, his collaborator Paul Broks invites us to contemplate mind-bending and heart-rending cases such as the woman suffering from Cotard's syndrome, a nihilistic delusional state which may be due to a decoupling of feeling and thought. It suggests that merely thinking that one exists may not be sufficient. The idea must also be felt. Descartes's dictum must therefore be amended to "I feel I think, therefore I am". At one point, Broks refers to certain categories of brain-damage as "thought experiments made flesh". And that, of course, would be a good definition of some kinds of devised theatre.

After over a year of reflection and periodic workshops, On Ego emerged as a scripted play which has just opened at the Soho Theatre, in London. "The debate in the piece", says Gordon, "is between bundle theory and ego theory. We know, neurologically speaking, that the mental processes underlying our sense of self are scattered through different zones of the brain. There's no point of convergence, or inner sanctum of self. Our brains literally make us up. Bundle theory endorses the neurological truth. Ego theory is simply the common, intuitive illusion that behind every face, there is an essence, an ego, an 'I', a central core. Our protagonist, a young neurologist, starts off as a committed bundle theorist."

Then, though, there are two dreadful developments. One is based on a "what if?" scenario, indebted to both Star Trek and the great Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit. The piece takes place in a world where the teleportation of people is possible through the transmission of digitally encoded information about them. The original person is always vaporised in the process to prevent doubling. But a hitch occurs, and the protagonist, now arrested and threatened with execution, must face up to the fact that a replica, who has perfect psychological continuity with him, has gone to meet his wife for dinner. According to his own theory, it shouldn't matter to him that the life he would have lived and the books he would have written will now be achieved by this indistinguishable surrogate. But it does, and the horror of his predicament is compounded by the fact that the wife is succumbing to Capgras syndrome, the neurological delusion that someone you love has been replaced by an impostor.

The resulting drama is both philosophically stretching and gut-wrenchingly ambivalent, making creative capital of the fact that actors, by virtue of their work, are natural bundle theorists and that theatre is adept at finding physically immediate metaphors for difficult concepts. "I think that Broks would say that the soul is an illusion," Gordon explains, "but that this certainly doesn't mean that it isn't important. The difficulty comes when we don't recognise that it's an illusion because brains have bodies to fight for what they think is real. The history of religion shows how constructive that can be," he adds dryly.

It's no coincidence, then, that the company's next project is On Religion, a collaboration with the philosopher A C Grayling. "This is the most rewarding work I do because I'm educating myself," the director announces. "But it's an expensive and lengthy process. Even to begin a serious conversation, the amount of reading and time spent in the company of experts is huge."

Let's hope that continued Arts Council support and Gordon's canny financial juggling of side-projects will mean that On Theatre can fulfil its promise of being an education to its artists and audiences alike.

'On Ego', Soho Theatre, London W1 (0870 429 6883) to 7 January

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture