Analogue’s latest production invites its audience to think about memory, about how and what we remember, the complex process of sifting and retrieval that takes places, and what happens when the brain fails to function as it should. 2401 Objects tells the story of Patient HM, one of the most famous case studies in neurology, whose brain has been preserved for research purposes; it survives as a series of slices – 2401 to be exact -and has helped to further the understanding of the relationship between the physical structure of the brain and the way humans store memories.
Just as Rebecca Skloot’s recent book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, told the human story behind the HeLa cell line, Analogue tell the story of Henry Molaison, a young American man whose epilepsy led him to undergo experimental brain surgery. The production begins with the recorded voice of Dr Jacopo Annese, a neuroscientist at the Brain Observatory. Following this brief introduction, we are introduced to two Molaisons. Firstly we see him as an old man, institutionalised, capable of completing crosswords, but completely unable to recall a conversation he had five minutes earlier; later we see him as a younger man, shyly engaging in conversation with his neighbour’s daughter.
The young Molaison suffered from several severe seizures a day and his debilitating epilepsy prevented him from holding down a job or moving out of the family home. In 1953 he underwent radical brain surgery, with an ambitious surgeon removing his hippocampi (which are strikingly described as resembling two sea horses). While the surgery did succeed in ridding him of his epilepsy, it also prevented him from forming new memories – and though it didn’t affect his procedural memory, it meant he was essentially trapped in the past. The reality of his situation is poignantly evoked through scenes in which the elderly Molaison, engagingly played by Pieter Lawman, interacts with his patient young nurse. He repeatedly recalls an event from his youth and she listens, each time responding as if hearing it afresh. Molaison does not think of himself as old, and is baffled by his reflection; he also has no recollection of his mother’s death and each time he realises his loss, he is distressed.
Analogue’s use of multimedia techniques, merging video and live performance, is more successful here than in their previous show, Beachy Head. Images are projected on a raised transparent screen and the cast are able to stand both behind and in front of these projections; there is also a fabric strip at the bottom of this screen, under which the performers frequently duck and tumble, vanishing into the black. The piece is nicely played, particularly by Lawman but also by Sebastien Lawson as both Dr Annese and the young Henry, and Melody Grove as both Molaison’s nurse and mother. While it ends a little abruptly, the production succeeds in making its audience pause to consider their internal workings, the mechanics of memory, and to appreciate Molaison’s unique contribution to medical research.