Review: Elegy Asks If It's Our Memories That Make Us Who We Are

Elegy, Donmar Warehouse ★★★☆☆

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 30 months ago
Review: Elegy Asks If It's Our Memories That Make Us Who We Are Elegy, Donmar Warehouse 3
Barbara Flynn and Zoë Wanamaker in Elegy. Photo: Johan Persson.

Nick Payne is one of our brainiest playwrights. His 2012 hit Constellations was a metaphysical love story featuring quantum mechanics. Now he has returned to the neuroscience subject-matter of his last play, Incognito, in a sharply intelligent dissection of the nature of selfhood and love.

In 70 vacuum-packed minutes, Elegy sets out with surgical precision a plausible scenario that takes place in the not too distant future. We see two women in their 60s meeting awkwardly, almost like strangers, yet it soon emerges that these ex-teachers have been married for 20 years — but only one of them remembers it.

Lorna’s degenerative brain disease has been cured with ‘neural prosthesis’ but at the cost of wiping out all her memories from the last two decades, so that she does not recognise her grieving partner Carrie and their relationship means nothing to her. Moving back in time, the couple’s closeness is shown before the operation, so that an elegiac sense of loss pervades.

Neuroscience seems all the rage on stage these days, with Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem and Lucy Prebble’s The Effect also examining different aspects of cognitive processes recently. And although dementia is not mentioned specifically, Elegy has some overlap with the disorientating effects of memory loss in Florian Zeller’s The Father.

Payne focuses on two themes: the ethical dilemmas posed by scientific progress, or ‘playing God’, and how heavily our sense of individual identity is dependent on memories giving our personal narrative continuity. It’s a lucid account of increasingly important issues without too much scientific jargon, but still comes across as a bit of a cerebral exercise, with the central relationship underdeveloped though their plight is concisely presented.

Josie Rourke’s sensitive direction does allow the play to breathe through the dense ideas, with Tom Scutt’s design of a split tree encased in glass suggesting both brain surgery and estranged relations, while the chairs arranged as if in a hospital waiting room are disorientatingly placed on a layer of asphalt gravel.

Zoë Wanamaker convincingly conveys Lorna’s confusion, fear and anger as she battles to retain her sense of self, while Barbara Flynn also impresses as the caring but conflicted Carrie who has to cope with a mixture of bereavement and rejection. And Nina Sosanya’s doctor Miriam suggests both clinical professionalism and compassionate concern, revealing that her own afflicted mother decided not to have the treatment — a hugely difficult choice that people may well have to make for real sometime in the future.

Elegy is on at the Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, WC2H 9LX, until 18 June. Tickets are £7-£37.50. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 01 May 2016