Four years ago, brainbox playwright Nick Payne’s breakthrough ‘Constellations’ blazed into the West End like a thousand suns. A tale of two people’s love set across an infinity of possible universes, it was exhilarating even as it pitched into tragedy. His unsettling new play’ Elegy’ is its elegant, muted opposite, a tale of love cooling in a single, dark future.
In near-identical bookending scenes, Zoë Wanamaker’s Lorna and Barbara Flynn’s Carrie are an estranged couple. It becomes slowly apparent that Lorna has had radical brain surgery (we later meet the surgeon, Nina Sosanya’s Miriam). It has rescued her from dementia at the cost of a chunk of her brain – replaced by a sophisticated microchip – and 25 years of memories – including her entire relationship with Carrie.
Unspooling in reverse chronological order, Wanamaker is especially good, with her sardonic, flamboyant rage against the dying of the light. But ‘Elegy’ is as much a thinkie as a weepie. In a graceful, troubling production, Josie Rourke and her superlative cast make you feel Carrie and Lorna’s agony and struggle – two cynical, urbane women who found each other in middle age, now facing cruel change. But we feel the philosophical weight of their dilemma as much as the emotional impact. What actually defines us as human beings, asks Payne. Is it purely our brains? If so, should there be ethical limits to brain surgery? Or is radical surgery justifiable in the face of a mind-altering disease? Should a loved one with power of attorney be allowed to sanction life-changing surgery against their partner’s original wishes?
In the most casually unnerving moment, Sosanya’s gabbling, unempathic Miriam mentions in passing that she ‘treated’ a guilt-stricken priest who wanted to have his faith eradicated. Carrie is horrified; Miriam can’t understand her objection and swiftly moves on. It sounds impossible, but Payne is a writer who knows his science, and it feels like an understatedly prophetic moment.
Also worth a mention is the superb set from Tom Scutt: a dead tree, split in two, in a glass case in a field of ash. It’s both a metaphor for Lorna’s fractured mind – fog swirls around it at the height of her confusion – and also ‘Elegy’s only real sci-fi flourish, a hint of a future in which man has ascended and nature has failed.
It’s a beautiful production of a provocative play (and by-the-by it’s great that it’s so casual about depicting a gay relationship). There is something unavoidably slight about it – at just 70 minutes, the characters ultimately feel underexplored. But its ideas resonate disproportionately to its size – a haunting sketch of all our futures.