The Man Who is an intriguing play, based on the bestseller The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. It consists of a series of Doctor/Patient scenarios that examine our attempts to understand the workings of the brain; various individuals living with neurological disorders. It’s a short play but for any actor, director or designer it offers such a challenge and creative opportunity, I’m surprised that I’d not heard of it before a year ago.
That is when my involvement with the play The Man Who began. We researched, devised and rehearsed for two weeks and performed at The Albany in Deptford. It was a scratch production – part of StoneCrabs Theatre Company’s Young Directors Festival. One night only. Quite soon after that, I headed off to India for a month. While I was gone, The Man Who went on to a further run at the Culture Space in Canada Water.
A year later and I was back in the fold. We formed a new company, ‘Sleight of Hand’ and The Man Who was to be our debut production – a sure intention of the areas of the human condition we wanted to explore as a new company. This time, we had a week at the Tristan Bates Theatre. New space, new cast members, same director but new ideas. In our original production, our ideas centred on the machine-like quality of the mind and this was reflected in the lighting, sound design and the mechanical like movements of patients and doctors alike. It somehow seemed to fit our understanding of the play at that time.
This time round, however, there seemed to be a natural shift to the human aspect of the play. We wanted to tell the stories of the individual patients with as much sincerity as possible – not just a show but a truthful exposition. It was not that we felt that what we had done before was wrong, far from it. That was our understanding a year ago and this was our understanding now. The great thing about going away and coming back to something is you realise that you have changed along with your project.
We had help along the way. We visited a stroke survivors group; people who live everyday with symptoms described in the play. And from Northwick Park Hospital, staff from the Neurology department visited us in rehearsal. They help and treat people with similar neurological disorders every day. Our main aim was authenticity. These were the people that would help us to achieve this.
During the run, authenticity was something that I was concerned with. Was I painting an accurate image? One night, the staff from Northwick were in and one of them said to me “a painter doesn’t worry about using exactly the right colours, he wants to create something beautiful”. This really rang true with me and seemed to put my worries to rest. As actors, we often worry about truth and authenticity but it is our job to communicate ideas and to stimulate thought in the most effective way. And through this, perhaps an audience can realise truth.
The responses from the show were highly positive and encouraging. Various people told me how affected they were by the performance. This is something that you can forget whilst you’re on ‘the inside’ of a show.
Our run of The Man Who at the Tristan Bates Theatre is over but we may be taking the show on tour, and the work we’ve done with this play has inspired Sleight of Hand’s forthcoming project, Ergo Sum. This will explore the real-life stories of people living with mental and neurological disorders: we are working with health practitioners, neurologists, academics and charities in order to make this happen. With the support of the Tristan Bates Theatre we aim to develop an immersive, site-responsive experience that explores the kaleidoscopic nature of the human psyche.
Check out our website for more information and do get in touch with us if you are interested in getting involved in the project: whether you are a writer/artist interested in working with us, a health practitioner or academic interested in the project, or someone with experience of mental and neurological issues who has a story to tell, we would love to hear from you.
Danny is an actor who trained at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts and has been involved with Sleight of Hand since the inception of their production of ‘The Man Who’. He is also a qualified Yoga teacher and teaches classes in London.
The Man Who, stage one of the Ergo Sum Project, is ran from March 23-28 at The Tristan Bates Theatre