Donmar Warehouse, London (****)
Nick Payne packs more into an hour than most playwrights into a lifetime.
That’s probably a bit of an exaggeration. But no question he is a master of brevity in the way Beckett spun a thought and a world into twenty minutes or less. Elegy, a companion piece to Payne’s recent Incognito is a further scientific/psychological study into the workings of the human brain focussing on the bit that can’t be measured – emotion and specifically our capacity for love.
Incognito, like some rubric cube, explored the nature of identity by way of obsession with Einstein’s brain and loss of memory. In the barely an hour long Elegy, Payne again delves into identity but from a different angle encompassing loss of memory but this time from the effect of medical intervention.
We’ve been here before, particularly in plays dealing with depression. Do you, in healing one area take away in another that special component that makes life worth living, ie feeling?
In Elegy, Zoë Wanamaker’s Lorna has some unspecified brain disease. The cure may be to cut it out, insert a chip thus restoring functionality but in so doing, the cost may be to wipe-out memory of the last twenty years or so of her life which has included falling in love with Barbara Flynn’s Carrie.
Not only is it rare for a male playwright to write of such a relationship but Payne does so with a delicacy that, as directed by Josie Rourke and played by Wanamaker and particularly Flynn, endows it with tenderness, wit and spontaneity that gives it total conviction.
Structurally too, Payne’s Elegy (for a relationship) has a perfect circularity, working backwards in time from the moment when Carrie first comes to see Lorna after her op when Carrie’s response to her attempts to rekindle the memory of what they once had -`I miss not loving you’ – is basically a blank, to the moment of their joint decision whether to go ahead or not with the procedure.
An exploration of choice, reformatting pathways of the brain but primarily what makes us human, Nina Sosanya as Carrie’s doctor, Miriam, captures just the right note Payne injects into her character of studied medical neutrality.
In all senses, terrific.
Elegy runs at the Donmar Warehouse to June 18, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate but slightly amended here.