Elegy*** (Donmar Warehouse)

Posted: May 25, 2016 in Theatre

elegy

In his hit play Constellations, Nick Payne pummelled us with incomprehensible cosmic science and then exploited our weakness by firing an emotional thunderbolt. Here, he tries something similar, packing in the same ingredients of science (this time medical), love and mortality. The play’s conceit is that a degenerative brain “illness” (not named, but let’s call it Alzheimer’s) can be cured by replacing damaged cells with prosthetic ones. The cost, in the case of the patient, Lorna, is the loss of all memories from the last 25 years of her life and a sense of emptiness that is captured hauntingly by the blank expression on Zoë Wanamaker’s face. Her partner, Carrie (Barbara Flynn) reaches out to her to rekindle their love but finds nothing in response. Payne is asking who we become when stripped of our memories and exploring whether the brain is just a muscle, as described by Lorna’s icily efficient doctor (Nina Sosanya), or a home for metaphysical entities such as love, yearning, grief and the soul. Tom Stoppard dipped into the same waters when considering the nature of consciousness in The Hard Problem last year and answers are equally hard to find for Payne. However, any assessment of the merits of his play becomes blurred by the luminous presence of Flynn and Wanamaker, both of whom could bring magic to a recital of the telephone directory. Scenes run in reverse order, showing clearly the choices that have to be made and the extent of the losses to be suffered. The concluding scene, more an epilogue, is enigmatic because of the way in which it is played rather than the writing. Josie Rourke’s solid production is set in what appears to be a modern chapel (designer Tom Scutt), emphasising occasional allusions to faith. There is plenty here to occupy and entertain a healthy brain, but, running at little over an hour, it is rather like a tasty hors d’oeuvre that would be better if  followed by a meatier main course.

Performance date: 24 May 2016

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