Brain power

Their 2007 debut Mile End won a Fringe First and 2009's Beachy Head was also widely praised. Now Analogue are returning with an intriguing new show about a famous brain surgery patient, as Joe Pike discovers

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 5 minutes
Published 04 Aug 2011

Do you fancy having your brain dissected in a procedure streamed live on the internet to 400,000 people? Before his death in 2008, an American called Henry Molaison gave his consent for this to happen.

Most people's wouldn't be remotely interesting to scientists, but Molaison's was different. In 1953, in a last-ditch effort to prevent his epileptic seizures, he underwent experimental brain surgery. The seizures ceased but it left him with severe memory impairment. He could no longer recall the previous two years of his life and he lost the ability to form new long-term memories, so lived eternally in the present.

30-year-old Liam Jarvis was gripped by that internet stream and two years on from the dissection, he's boundlessly enthusiastic about Molaison's life. He's the most written about patient in the history of neuroscience, with something in the region of 11,900 scientific journals published on him.

Jarvis speaks with the wide-eyed excitement of a child: "His brain was dissected into 2401 micron-thin slices. And those brain slices are being individually scanned and turned into a 3D Google map of the human brain."

Alongside his life as a PhD student, Jarvis and his old university friend, Hannah Barker, are the wunderkinds behind theatrical alchemists Analogue. The company created the show everyone was raving about at the 2007 Fringe—Mile End—and 2009's highly regarded Beachy Head. Renowned for an obsession with using technology on stage and doing a serious amount of research for each show, their third production—inspired by Molaison's story and entitled 2401 Objects—is no less ambitious.

Central in the preparation has been a collaboration with the neuroscience expert who dissected Molaison's brain, Dr Jacopo Annese of the Brain Observatory in San Diego. "We've had a number of transatlantic phone calls with Dr Jacopo, who has very kindly agreed to let us use his voice in the show," explains Jarvis. "So we want to introduce him directly to our audience and to talk to him about the operation. He's creating the slides that let us peer at a microscopic level into the void that was created by Dr William Scoville, who conducted the operation in the 1950s. It's almost a kind of archaeology.”

In 2401 Objects, Analogue have again found a story with social and ethical complexities. Barker says their aim is very much to provoke thought and so far, understanding the human side of their main character has been a compelling, if challenging, journey: “What's hard to find out about is Henry's emotional life – what he was like with his family. His guardian was his mother and then his aunt and that role was passed on to Suzanne Quorkin, who is the scientist who looked after him as a subject. He was heavily guarded in his health centre.”

Lewis Hetherington, the dramaturge on the project, jumps in: "It's important to remember his intellect wasn't impaired at all so he had these discussions up to his death. And what's interesting is that there are a number of transcriptions that exist where he took pride in taking part and 'helping other people'. He used that phrase a lot.”

You'd think it might be a charmed existence being part of such a successful theatre company. But don't underestimate the sweat that's been shed in the fight to get Analogue established. "Certainly when Mile End first started, we paid for it doing other jobs," says Jarvis. "I was working in a call centre on Brick Lane, Hannah was working for an agency. So we would work all day in full-time jobs and rehearse in the evening. It's incredibly hard.”

Jarvis knows the many potential pitfalls for so-called "emerging artists", especially in a volatile financial climate: "It's a Catch 22 situation for most young companies. You have to have a track record to be able to attract funding, but to get a track record you have to find support and resources. And it's a really difficult cycle to break."

Barker agrees: "You can't cut corners which is unfortunate, but it does mean you have to sacrifice a lot at the very beginning. We were doing two jobs, we moved out of our houses and back in with our parents for a year, all to get Mile End up to Edinburgh, to be able to pay for all the marketing and get it into a good state. There's so much sacrifice in that early stage.”

Even now as an affiliate company of the National Theatre, with funding from the Arts Council and countless venues desperate to co-produce their work, life's not really much smoother. They admit to leading a nomadic lifestyle, living out of suitcases as they travel across the UK and continental Europe to secure small periods of free rehearsal space at sympathetic theatres. Plus they each have numerous commitments and interests outside Analogue. "It feeds into the work we make," argues Jarvis. "Hannah is a professional journalist, Lewis is also a playwright and freelance writer, and I'm doing a PhD and teach at a university.”

Yet now they can no longer claim to be the new kids on the Fringe and expectations are understandably high. Analogue need to sell a lot of tickets to fill their new performance space in Edinburgh: "Terrifyingly, it's approximately double the capacity of any venue we've been to before," says Barker. "It's about 350 seats and that's a big space to fill. It's scary - you don't want to let people down."