The relationship between memory, identity and human existence are explored in this drama by British playwright Nick Payne (Constellations)
UK playwright Nick Payne had a breakout hit with his 2012 play Constellations, which dealt with the concept of finding love in a universe of immense possibility. His most recent play, Incognito, could be seen as a variation on a theme, if not exactly a companion piece. It also deals with immense possibility, with a universe so massive that the individual experience seems dwarfed and irrelevant, and it also finds love at its centre. Payne clearly finds the scientific mind fascinating, and his enthusiasm for those who seek answers to infinite questions is positively contagious.
At the heart of this play is Albert Einstein, as a source of inspiration and as an exhibit to be dissected, analysed and probed. Einstein’s brain was removed hours after his death in 1955 by pathologist Thomas Harvey (Ben Prendergast), ostensibly stolen by him for ‘medical research’. Many years later, in 1997, journalist Michael Paterniti (Paul Ashcroft) tracks Harvey down and convinces him to drive across the country to show the brain to Einstein’s granddaughter Evelyn (Kate Cole). Out of this bizarre true story, Payne weaves an incredibly poignant meditation on legacy, heredity and the price of genius.
Payne counterpoints this story with another: the story of a warm, genteel Englishman named Henry (Ashcroft) who suffers from acute memory loss. His wife Margaret (Jing-Xuan Chan) has brought in a doctor (Prendergast) to examine him and possibly offer some hope. But Henry only ever experiences brief moments of lucidity before the veil of forgetfulness drops. It’s a condition that never changes, marooning him in a world of looping repetitions.
As if that weren’t enough, Payne introduces a third strain into the narrative, that of neuropsychologist Martha (Cole) and her tentative relationship with an out-of-work lawyer, Patricia (Chan). Martha is increasingly freaked out by feelings of meaninglessness, triggering an existential crisis that affects her ability to do her work. It’s rooted in her nebulous sense of identity, which is in turn rooted in her uncertain genealogy. This ties directly into the other two narratives in complex and moving ways. In fact, Payne’s genius here is in the echoes and reverberations between all his characters, the noble and ignoble grapplings with meaning and connection that link us all.
Red Stitch founding members Ella Caldwell and Brett Cousins direct with admirable grace and sensitivity. It almost seems a given that the performances from this company will be thoughtful and deeply felt, and this is a textbook example of the kind of thing they do so well. Ashcroft and Prendergast give heartfelt and quietly devastating performances of men grasping something that has already slipped through their fingers. Cole is a powerhouse of repression and angst, and Chan brings an expansive sense of empathy and calm to several roles.
The design is some of the best this theatre has seen. Chloe Greaves’ set and costumes are wondrous. A black lacquered floor gives the impression that the characters are poised on a lake of tar, and the piano that seems paused in mid-explosion brings to mind the moment of creation itself, frozen in time. Tom Willis’s lighting is magnificent, a plethora of warm bulbs that break the white washes like sparks of humanity in an abyss. And the Sweats provide another outstanding sound design, discordant and fractured.
This is theatre that adds immeasurably to the cultural life of our city; clever and chock full of ideas, it’s also profoundly affecting and humane. Payne’s writing is highly intelligent, but Caldwell and Cousins never let it become merely intellectual. The brain can only tell us so much, they seem to be saying; the mysteries of the human heart are where our real meanings can be found.