A Man in Pieces by Michael Symmons Roberts

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A Man in Pieces by Michael Symmons Roberts (2010). 

Dir. Susan Roberts.  Perf. Graeme Hawley, Gillian Kearney, Clive Russell.  BBC Radio 4 Extra, 8 Jan. 2015.

BBCiPlayer to 7 Feb. 2015.


Dr. Jen Johnson (Gillian Kearney) has just received her PhD for inventing a new medical sonic scanner that records the sounds inside the body.  In the interests of scientific research, she needs to find a guinea-pig who will volunteer to be scanned, so that she can find out more (and hence enhance her career).  Conor (Graeme Hawley) seems to fit the bill admirably – young and fit, he has both the mental and physical strength to cope with the ordeal.  Unfortunately he has also been going out with Jen for five years, which might lead to a confusion of personal and professional interests on her part …


Susan Roberts’s production used the premise of scientific discovery to conduct a searching analysis of the limits of human knowledge.  Is it possible to “know” anyone, or is there some intangible part of the psyche that defies all attempts at deconstruction?  According to psychoanalyst Irving D. Yalom, continual interaction with his patients taught him that there is something “beyond words,” rendering each individual unknowable: “While vast research programs seek to decipher electrical and biochemical activity of the brain, each person’s flow of experience is so complex that it will forever outdistance new eavesdropping technology.”


This might be a positive quality, but there might be negative side-effects of applying such technology to an individual mind.  A Man in Pieces explored this aspect, as Conor discovered the presence of his conscience (Clive Russell), speaking in a thick Glaswegian accent, which kept telling him what to do, even if he (Conor) had no intention of carrying out his conscience’s orders.  In the end, Conor managed to quell his conscience, but it left him in a worse state than before.


The title of Symmons Roberts’s play – A Man in Pieces – could be interpreted in two ways.  From a scientific perspective, Jen wanted to dissect Conor’s consciousness; to break it into pieces so as to burrow into the recesses of the human mind in the interests of research.  In this she was wholeheartedly supported by colleague Matthew (Malcolm Raeburn), who maintained a gung-ho attitude towards the experiments throughout.  On the other hand the title also adumbrated the consequences of the experiment: as a result of the scans, Conor’s consciousness was broken into pieces, leaving him emotionally broken.  As listeners, we were left to ponder the morality of the entire exercise, and whether “research” in its purest sense is truly valuable or not.


The production made use of two tunes played on the piano by Conor, creating a faux-romantic atmosphere that contrasted starkly with the unearthly sounds made by the scanner.  Music, it seemed, was totally divorced from science.  And yet perhaps not: Jen called the scanner the Goldberg Scanner, after Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a favorite piece when she and Conor had gone out together (played by Glenn Gould).  Perhaps classical music was but an extension of the music of the human mind: both remained unknowable, despite Jen’s experiments.


With a powerful sound-design and a nuanced central performance from Hawley as Conor, A Man in Pieces offered a disturbing critique of the spirit of scientific enquiry.