A Man in Pieces
by Michael Symmons Roberts (2010).
Roberts. Perf. Graeme Hawley, Gillian
Kearney, Clive Russell. BBC Radio 4
Extra, 8 Jan. 2015.
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
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