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If the workings of the human mind are the last great mystery, then rising star Nick Payne – writer of the wondrous ‘Constellations’ – in no way solves it with his new play. But, within its delicate mesh of resonating stories, ‘Incognito’ does ask some big, existential questions playfully and poignantly. Most ntoably: how do we physically quantify who somebody is?
Two real-life cases criss-cross the play. First, that of American pathologist Thomas Stoltz Harvey, who removed Albert Einstein’s brain and spent the rest of his life trying to find something special about it.
Second, Henry Maison, a fictional Anglicised version of Henry Molaison, a memory disorder patient who lost his short-term memory yet developed new skills during his years in hospital.
And thirdly to add a more domestic, more recognisable thread, there’s a fictional contemporary romance between two Brits: feisty solicitor Patricia and jaded neurologist Martha, who is having problems owning up to her ‘new’ lesbian identity.
Payne is a gifted playwright, not the greatest scientist who has ever lived, so rather than drawing some profound conclusion about humanity, ‘Incognito’ essentially serves to point out unfathomable we remain even to ourselves. And it is written with much wit and tenderness, deftly directed by Joe Murphy, and there are beautiful performances from the four-strong cast who play all the roles (kudos to dialect coach Helen Ashton for some magnificent accent work).
The structure of ‘Incognito’ is clever as you'd expect from Payne, its callbacks and interlocking textures mirroring the memory tests administered to poor Henry. It doesn’t quite have the burning grandeur of Lucy Prebble’s ‘The Effect’ (2012), which covered similar ground, but it shares the quiet romance and winsome fascination with our life on earth.