Edinburgh Fringe 2011
2401 Objects is a beautifully crafted and executed piece of theatre which somehow just falls short of a powerful emotional impact.
Henry Molaison was a patient who underwent experimental brain surgery in 1953 which effectively cured him of severe epilepsy but left him with amnesia. The direct link between the areas of his brain removed during the surgery and the specific nature of his amnesia (he was unable to form new long-term memories) led to new understanding of how we process and store memories, and for the remainder of his life patient HM was the subject of ongoing investigation. A year after his death in 2008, his brain was sliced into 2401 pieces – a procedure that was streamed live on the internet.
Out of this Analogue have created a beautifully crafted show full of inventiveness and panache in both staging and performance. The three actors ably recreate the worlds of 1950s suburban America and the institutional environs of Henry’s later life.
The story is told through the interweaving of three time-lines. At the beginning of the show we hear the recorded voice of Dr Jacopo Anese, the man who dissected Henry’s brain, who is then played by Sebastien Lawson as a kind of narrator in the present day. Addressing the audience from down stage right Lawson’s amiable confidence instantly wins our trust and there is a memorable episode when he instructs the audience in how to locate the hippocampus inside your own head.
Lawson also doubles as the young Henry in the scenes of his life before his operation, and shares some touching moments with Melody Grove as the girl-next-door, the barest flicker of a romance turned into a comic fantasy by his loving but detached father, played mostly for comic effect by Pieter Lawman.
Lawman then becomes the older, post-operative Henry, and while I found his likeness to Hugh Laurie in his timing and facial expressions as the father amusing but slightly distracting, I was impressed by his beautifully judged reaction to the news of his mother’s death, a scene enhanced by the way Grove’s nurse tactfully distracts him and he forgets again, perhaps for another eleven years.
The jumping between the three time frames is initially a bit confusing, particularly when Henry suddenly became Henry’s father – the two actors swapping the Henry role are alike in age but quite different in appearance so there was no visual aid to immediately accept this switching of roles. After a while you do get used to it, but I wondered if the initial jolt could have been better prepared.
Given the theme of memory and the jumping forward and backwards in time, there are plenty of opportunities for proleptic irony which are not missed, for instance when we see Henry’s parents struggling to decide whether to allow Dr Scofield to perform surgery on Henry, we already know the outcome – that in an effort to control his epilepsy Scofield was to remove not just a part (as in previous patients) but the whole of Henry’s hippocampus.
The production values are first class – particularly effective use is made of the ingenious movable and rotating gauze screen, which sweeps over the actors during scene changes and threatens to steal the show.
The play has some important things to say about the part that memory plays in identity – and poses the question are you more yourself if you always live in the moment, or are you only you because you are the sum of all your experience and memories?
In the end, I felt a little disappointed that for all the rich potential of the story, richly explored, the show somehow left me feeling not so deeply moved. Perhaps the abundant excellence of stagecraft left this minimalist a bit cold, or perhaps, in the end, HM’s story is not really the subject matter of a tragedy. Henry was, in the beginning and at the end, an innocent, and the suffering and deaths of innocents, though sad, is not, by definition, tragic.