In this fast and fizzy new drama by award-winning playwright Nick Payne, four actors inhabit 21 characters all of whom are connected by neuroscience. Some are scientists, some are guinea pigs, some stand on the side-lines watching in despair at what is being done in the name of research.
The first half of the play involves the audience trying to figure out who is who and what their stories are. Attention is paramount. Fortunately the actors – Paul Hickey, Amelia Lowdell, Alison O’Donnell and Sargon Yelda – are mesmerising. They switch accents and postures with pinpoint precision, sometimes midway through a line. Director Joe Murphy recreates the feel of a tag-team wrestling match as two actors sit down sipping water while the other pair takes to the stage. The four are only together in one scene – where they get to chill for a minute and sit down stoned. Then after that the pace quickens again and the play is over almost a touch too soon (the whole show lasts around 90 minutes).
This breakneck speed is both a selling point and a problem. There are three stories interwoven together – two of which are interesting and deserve more time, one of which is flat in comparison. The better strands are both true: one about Thomas Stoltz Harvey, the man who stole Einstein’s brain, while the other concerns Henry Molaison, a tragic figure who was given experimental treatment in the 50s to ‘cure’ his epilepsy. Both of these tales would have made for rich plays in their own right and you can’t help feeling that slicing them up in a showy fragmented narrative fails to serve them properly.
Similarly the intellectual heft you might be expecting is somewhat sacrificed by a compulsion to be dramatic. Though Payne demands great focus from his audience he does not seem to trust them (or perhaps himself) with the bigger ideas. It’s a shame because though you end up with a taste for the stuff explored in Incognito, you’re left with the task of googling most of it once you get home.
Incognito is on at the Bush Theatre until Saturday 21 June 2014. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.