Recently, the Alzheimer’s Society released a Facebook app aiming to demonstrate what it is like to have dementia. You let it in to your profile and it shows you pictures of your friends, photos, and things before deleting some. In conjunction with scientific advisors, Bread and Goose have created something along the same lines but viscerally moving in a much more multimodal way. Lost in the Neuron Forest engages the audience’s sight, smell, haptics, and affection to create something that we respond to bodily. The sight of lights switched off combine with the feel of rope slipping through our hands and the smell of flowers piteously torn in forgetful distraction, to let us in to the head of Edna (Nicky Goldie), a lady with dementia.
Most powerfully, this production plays on the audience’s own kinaesthetic memories to get its point across. We are invited to hold taut a set of ropes, that represent neural pathways, naming a pet, a skill, a first crush as each rope (many hung with photographs) rises from the ground. Spanning the room, the ropes create ‘the neuron forest’ of a brain, our brain, Edna’s. As dementia encroaches on Edna’s mind, we are told to drop the ropes one by one. Feeling something physically slide from your grasp in this way is somehow deeply evocative of lack, physical loss. Calling up and playing upon all our personal embodied ideas of disconnection, our own cognitive associations of broken embraces, lost kites, runaway children tearing themselves from our handhold, it helps us to feel as Edna might.
As Edna weaves her way through the hindering horizontal ‘forest’ of her own brain, the problematic image of a homunculus sitting at the neural control-panels that she potentially evokes is validated by its context.
Like many of the participatory elements of the play, this rope-game is presided over by a neuroscientist, Anthony (the ever-patient, beneficent Hywel Simons), who is using it to try and help Edna visualise her dementia. At various intervals, Edna presents us with origami seagulls. These are both literal memories of a life-long skill and metaphors (it is implied) of the ways memories can be copied almost-but-not-quite-
As paper seagulls are pulled generously from her bulging, then deflating, pockets we realise she will soon run out of these seagull-memories and responsibility is transferred to us. Holding her seagulls, repeating phrases for her, or allowing her to stick post-its on our bodies (the sticky notes are inscribed with reminders as diverse as ‘teabags in pot not in kettle’, and ‘Bill is dead’) the whole audience and cast work together to become a dynamic system of memories, trying increasingly hard to help Edna. Once, not needing us, she rattles off icecream flavours fast as a cart galloping on cobbles (an old, deep memory of her past as an icecream seller on the seafront, hard to dislodge) and this time the neuroscientist is stumped ‘I can’t remember all those!’, he complains, desperate for a menu he can peruse in his own time.
I hear actors get bored when you ask them how they learn ‘all those lines’ (or manage to conceal them around the set), but in this play there is a poignant overlap between the efforts of memory needed to perform the play and the failing memory of the central character. At one moment, as Edna goes to stay in (presumably) a care home as her failing memory makes it difficult to live alone, I felt a certain dissonance. Edna gives a lucid speech about what it is like to have dementia, during which she never loses her train of thought or repeats herself. Amidst what was a warm, realistic portrayal, of the repetitions, forever-broken sentences, and vague politenesses of later stages of dementia, I wasn’t quite sure where to place this sudden recovery: the voice of the author, the fluency of the actor, protruding into what had become the incredibly intimate, closed world of Edna’s emptying mind.
Nicky Goldie is believable, funny, likeable, as we watch Edna lose her boundaries and confuse her husband with the neuroscientist (a confusion we, again, share as the characters are both played by Hywel Simons), and run away from her now unfamiliar surroundings and the daughter who is now a stranger to the only place that feels like home: the beach, the past. As the writer-director of this piece writes, Lost in the Neuron Forest can make us, like Anthony, respond to people with dementia more kindly, with more understanding of the meanings behind all their actions.