Big thinker – Mick Gordon and On Ego

Director Mick Gordon has returned to theatre after three years with On Ego, an examination of human conciousness co-written with a neuropsychologist. He tells Nick Smurthwaite why the big questions of life need to be tackled on the stage

Since his triumph with the 2002 Transformations season at the National Theatre, Mick Gordon has been conspicuous by his absence. The man generally regarded as one of our brightest young sparks and the natural heir to Peter Brook seemed to disappear overnight.

Three years on, he is back in action, directing the inaugural production of his own experimental company, On Theatre, and filling his 2006 diary with assorted directorial commitments at home and abroad.

In his wilderness years – “I needed to ask some big questions about my life and whether I wanted to carry on doing what I was doing” – Gordon took time out to recharge his batteries and rethink his career. He worked as a director and dramaturg in Lithuania, Uganda, Stockholm and Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, where the play he devised and directed is still running after two and a half years.

“I spent an amazing six months working with Mark Weil, director of the Ilkhom Theatre in Tashkent, where theatre is so important to a community oppressed by an authoritarian regime,” says Gordon. “It has become a crucial refuge for artists and philosophers.”

In Uganda he worked with the Endere Troupe which dedicates itself to communicating health and education issues, such as Aids and water contamination, to the poorer communities through puppetry, music and simple dramatic scenarios. In Stockholm he revived the modern classics Betrayal and The Real Thing with the UK-based company A Million Freds.

“All those experiences inspired and humbled me,” Gordon states. “But after I returned to the UK I had to come back to the fact that I am my background, which is Belfast and London and I should be at home trying to speak to my generation and confronting the fundamental preoccupations of modern life.”

Gordon, who is 34, had already embarked on this theatrical voyage of discovery during his time running the Gate – he took over from Stephen Daldry – when he produced Intimate Death, about people close to death, based on the journals of Parisian psychologist Marie de Hennezel, and Love’s Work, about people in love, which took its inspiration from the recorded testimonies of friends and strangers.

To kick off his new company, Gordon has been no less compromising in his choice of material. With the distinguished neuropsychologist Paul Broks, he has co-written On Ego, combining art, science and philosophy to examine the idea of self, what makes one person different from another.

“I have always been more interested in the possibilities of theatre than in directing plays,” says the personable Irishman. “I want to take the big questions of human existence – life, death, love, faith – and liberate them from academia, examine them in the more democratic forum of theatre.”

The main character in On Ego is a neurologist whose wife has been diagnosed with a brain tumour and appears to be undergoing a personality change. It explores what we need in order to invent ourselves and how we use other people’s views of us as reference points.

Broks himself has been closely involved with the project during its 18-month gestation – Gordon was awarded a special NESTA ‘dreamtime’ grant to develop On Ego – and a hand-picked group of actors has had “a huge amount of input” in creating the characters who flesh this theatre essay, as Gordon calls it.

“It is expensive and time-consuming doing theatre essays because I need to learn a lot about the subject, and the expert whose work I’m dramatising needs to come in to our workshops and learn about how actors can invent and tell stories. The actors are the human element to all this, and the ones I’ve worked with so far love being intimately involved in the gestation of the drama. I impose my ideas but only to give the actors a starting point to explore the characters, that’s when the unexpected stuff happens.”

Despite this earnest and rarefied approach to theatre, Gordon says he sees little difference between the subsidised sector and the West End, citing his “very happy year” spent assisting Matthew Warchus on the nineties hit Art. He went on to direct Art in Buenos Aires, and then staged a £2 million revival of My Fair Lady at Argentina’s National Theatre. “I think the British theatre is in tremendous shape and I’m delighted to be part of it,” he tells me. “My view is that it is emotion not intellect that should lead in the theatre. I treat my intellectual subjects emotionally. The aim is to make good work and involve people as intimately as possible.”

Next year Gordon will turn his attention to religion with the help of the philosopher AC Grayling. He makes no bones about his own attitude to the subject when he tells me he intends it to be “a hymn to secularism”.

He says, “I grew up in Belfast. My first word was ‘splosion’ so I think you can guess where I’m coming from. I want to question the roots of my belief and how institutional ideas become individual delusions.”

And does he expect to be invited back to the National to revive Transformations? “There is no need,” he says, smiling, “Nick Hytner has transformed the whole building.”

* On Ego is playing at the Soho Theatre until January 7

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The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London. Photo: Noel Foster