On Emotion @ Soho Theatre, London

cast list
James Wilby, Caroline Catz, Rhian Blythe, Mark Down

directed by
Mick Gordon
Question: when is a play not a play? Answer: when it’s an essay with characters attached.

While On Emotion raises some fascinating points, about how the human mind works and about the gulf between reason and emotion, as theatre its scaffolding is always very visible, one can see the thinking behind every scene and interchange, to the detriment of the drama.

On Emotion is the latest in Mick Gordon’s series of On… plays (On Love, On Religion) and the second one on which he has collaborated with the neuropsychologist Paul Broks, following On Ego.
The play concerns a cognitive behavioural therapist, Stephen, and his two children, Lucy, a rather self-absorbed young actress, and Mark, who, conveniently in a play that deals in the workings of human feelings, appears to have some form of autism. Though his condition is left unspecified, he has many of the associated poor social skills that come with it: he has no concept of fear and a tendency to repeat verbatim conversations he has overheard. Mark cannot read emotion, preferring instead the world of Star Trek, the logical mindset of Mr Spock; his greatest pleasure is his 8 o’clock visit to his father’s study to look at the stars through a telescope.

Stephen is treating one of Lucy’s friends, Anna, an artist and puppet-maker (which, once again, feels a bit too neat, seeing as the play’s main thrust is that we are puppets of our emotions). Anna is beset by dark dreams and angry outbursts; she is sinking, but Stephen is helping her keep her head above water. Recently divorced, he is also attracted to her, and, while composing a lecture on human emotion (much of which he delivers direct to the audience), he indulges his sexual fantasies in the privacy of his study.

This brief masturbatory interlude seems an initially tasteless scene, but then this play is asking its audience to address and question why certain scenarios trigger disgust and upset in people, so in that sense it is fitting. But like so much else in this play it feels as if it were included to illustrate a theoretical point rather than as a way of evolving the plot.

The strong cast do much to give shape to potentially two-dimensional characters. James Wilby has the necessary air of authority as Stephen, but is also able to show the human frailties beneath the professional veneer. Caroline Catz strikes the right balance as Anna: she may be losing her grip, but she’s still far more grounded than her flighty friend Lucy, played by Rhian Blythe (recently seen in Gordon’s acclaimed Deep Cut).

Mark Down, stuck with the difficult role of Mark, a man who engages with the world on a different level to most, manages to sidestep some, if not all, of the clichs inherent in such a character. Down is also the co-founder of Blind Summit, the puppet theatre company responsible for the cool three foot high space man puppet that is given considerable stage time.

While the meat of Stephen’s lecture about the way in which emotions shape our interactions with the world is indeed fascinating (as was Broks’ book Into The Silent Land, which is definitely worth seeking out), the play into which it is woven feels too contrived to genuinely enlighten. And, crucially for a play that deals with emotions, the would be pathos-tinged ending is inexcusably unmoving.

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