On Ego | Red Stitch TheatreLeft - Denis Moore and Andrea Swifte. Cover - Denis Moore. Photos - Jodie Hutchinson

The brain is a storytelling machine. The self is the story.

A mind-meld of marriage and metaphysics, On Ego is a witty and emotional muse on the nature of consciousness and what it means to let go of our sense of self. Paul Broks and Mick Gordon's 'theatre essay' is a welcome and refreshing attempt to take complex scientific ideas and make them accessible, entertaining and thought-provoking.

Not only does On Ego accomplish this, it does so in a way that makes the abstract ideas it discusses jarringly real. The central theme of the play is famed neurologist Francis Crick's so-called Astonishing Hypothesis - that conscious experience is not caused by the behaviour of neurons, it is the behaviour of neurons. We might think of ourselves as free agents charged with intention, but in fact we are literally just a bundle of nerves. The brain is a storytelling machine and the self is the story.

This is all laid out in captivating and discomfiting detail at the start of the play by Alex (Denis Moore), a neurologist who delivers the exposition in the form of a lecture, with accompanying visuals projected onto a screen behind him. The lecture is extraordinarily lifelike and Moore's portrayal of Alex is superb. His expressive features and tentative yet suddenly animated mannerisms are commanding, with the endearing warmth and humour of the best university professors. The overall effect is a little like watching Jim Broadbent deliver a lecture.

Demonstrating his confidence in this 'bundle' theory of consciousness, Alex employs the assistance of a teleporter to make his point. Transporting oneself from one place to another holds no fear for bundle theorists - there is no 'I' that risks being lost in the process, no ghost in the machine. Actions and experiences are what we are. Teleporting is just another experience.

While Alex delights in dispelling the illusions of consciousness, reality hits closer to home when we learn that his wife has an inoperable brain tumour. At first all this means for Alice (Andrea Swifte) is the occasional misplaced word or mental blank, but in time things will become much harder. Alice fights the onset of disease while Alex is forced to watch his wife slowly lose her mind until she no longer even recognises him.

I did mention this is a comedy, didn't I? You wouldn't think so, given the subject matter, but it is a credit to the script and the performers that the play manages to keep the audience laughing throughout. The humour derives largely from the personality of the characters, their stubborn optimism and whimsical rants on everything from relationships to religion, and especially from the loving bickering as they try to recreate the romance of their first date.

Did I mention there's a twist? The teleport is supposed to vapourise a body and reconstruct it identically elsewhere, but it seems this time there has been less than perfect continuity. The new Alex was constructed as usual, but the original wasn't vapourised. So now there are two Alexes. Who is the 'real' one? Is there any way to tell the difference? Does the fact Alice no longer recognises Alex mean she is losing her mind or that he might not actually be her 'real' husband?

This twist is the backdrop for most of the musing on consciousness, more humour and more raw emotion, especially as Derek (Tim Ross), who is Alex's colleague and Alice's father, tries to explain to the original Alex that 'the existence of surplus individuals must be discontinued' and realisation dawns on Alex that it is he who is the surplus. Suddenly he no longer seems so keen to let go of the illusion of consciousness.

On Ego is a clever, funny and fast-paced story, and in the modest but well-appointed Red Stitch Theatre the strength and emotion of the actors' performances make for an experience which is both intimate and intense. There is also a powerfully dark and uncomfortable edge to it all that stays with you long after you leave the theatre. Director Daniel Frederiksen has done a fine job hitting the right balance with a script that is potent but which could easily come off as either too dark or too frivolous.

My only criticism is that the young Tim Ross does not look old enough to convincingly play Alex's father-in-law, despite a scholarly and slightly ponderous portrayal and rather distinguished facial hair. It's not Ross' fault and his performance as Derek is good, but it does take away a little at times from the vividly real interplay between Alex and Alice. Then again, perhaps Derek has a secret too...

This is a great show. It has the mystery of The Prestige, the strange, loopy humour of Red Dwarf, and, as Alex holds aloft a human brain and wonders out loud at the meaning of existence, one cannot help but feel there's a nod to the tragedy of Shakespeare as well. Be sure to see it if you can, it's guaranteed to get your neurons firing.

Red Stitch Theatre presents
On Ego
by Mick Gordon and Paul Broks

Directed by Daniel Frederiksen

Venue: Red Stitch Actors Theatre, rear 2 Chapel St, St Kilda East (opposite Astor)
Dates/Times: Friday 20 November – Saturday 19 December at 8pm (Sundays at 6.30pm). No show Monday or Tuesday.
Duration: approximately 100 minutes including interval
Tickets: $20-$34 ($15 student rush)
Bookings: www.redstitch.net or on 03 9533 8083 (telephone booking fees apply)

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