It’s not the first time Nick Payne has posed this question. Back in 2012 the playwright astounded us with a love story that turned into a neurological crisis (Constellations Royal Court, 2012). Soon, with a 'Best New Play' award, star-studded Broadway transfer and a follow up play that once again delved into the complexities of memory and identity (Incognito Bush Theatre, 2014), he was the toast of the town and epitome of bright young talent.
Now, as Writer in Residence at the Donmar, Payne returns to the knotty neurological themes that have become his trademark in new play Elegy. Set in a tangible future, where parts of the human brain can removed and artificially regenerated, it explores the repercussions of such medical advances.
Director Josie Rourke keeps the three-hander simple, focussing on language. All the action takes place around a leafless tree, enclosed in a glass box. It's not the subtlest or most original metaphor for the human mind, but it's an elegant centrepiece.
Lorna (Zoe Wanamaker) is brusque and slightly bewildered as she tells another woman (Barbara Flynn) to please leave a stage space arranged like a minimalist hospital.
We hear how the two are married, learn how they met, the readings chosen for the wedding. But all recollection of this life has been removed from Lorna's mind. A doctor (Nina Sosanya) tries, and fails, to simplify the science surrounding the medical procedure to a level of normal human comprehension.
At first the dramatic conceit feels familiar, like a mixture between Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and 50 First Dates. But as Payne's non-linear narrative tunnels into the realities of Lorna and Carrie's relationship, flashbacks flicker with fading lucidity. We are invited into a bond that's as warm, playful and endlessly human, radiantly brought to life by Wanamaker and Flynn. The tree skeleton in the middle of the stage is obscured by fog. Books are plucked from the floor and buried back down. The flashes between each vignette have a surreal edge. And with each piecemeal memory Lorna loses more and more control over her own mind.
The drama harks back to Constellations, circling around that same dilemma about a loved one losing the essence of her being. But here life or death are not the only options: science offers a sort of solution. And it is this agonising opportunity, the possibility of removing diseased brain tissue and with it taking all the memories stored within those cells, that is haunting. But, curiously, considering the emotive subject matter, Payne keeps the tone verging on academic.
It's not as arresting as Constellations or quite as ingeniously original as Incognito, but Nick Payne's latest play certainly has all the trappings that make his writing remarkable.
|What||Elegy, Donmar Warehouse review|
41 Earlham Street, Seven Dials, London, WC2H 9LX | MAP
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21 Apr 16 – 18 Jun 16, 7:30 PM – 9:30 PM
|Price||£10 - £37.50|
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