“Imagine how liberating it would be not to remember who you were”
If you saw the mega-hit that was Nick Payne’s Constellations, then the fragmented structure of his new play Incognito will come as little surprise. Here, he has deconstructed three stories loosely connected around the theme of neurology and woven them back together in a searching meditation on the vital importance memory plays in our lives and also in the construction of our very selves and touching on how little we truly understand about it.
Payne riffs off historical events for two of the three strands – the bizarre theft of Albert Einstein’s brain by the man who performed the autopsy on him, and the pioneering experiences of Henry Maison who underwent experimental brain surgery and thus helped shape the future of neuroscience. Along with extended and embellished versions of both stories is the tale of Martha, a present-day clinical neuropsychologist also caught in a moment of mental fragility.
Joe Murphy’s production has a wonderfully synaptic rhythm, moving swiftly from scene to scene with a carefully modulated speed as character after character is introduced and shards of stories dangled in front of us, the play’s structure developing as it progresses too. Payne has largely resisted a logical progression of his narrative so our own thought processes come into play, clues and information eventually coalescing into clarity but the moments of realisation visibly coming at different points, an interesting brain exercise in itself.
He’s helped by a marvellous quartet of performances – Alison O’Donnell, Paul Hickey, Amelia Lowdell and Sargon Yelda free-wheeling their way through over 20 characters and managing to delineate them all beautifully. There’s a neat balance too between the crushingly heart-breaking world of brain injuries and the comic relief often necessary whilst working in such a difficult field – Yelda’s traumatised Henry countered by his hilariously inappropriate lawyer, O’Donnell’s overwhelmed wife contrasted with her brash Aussie waitress.
There are some delightfully understated echoes across the stories too – the joy one takes in a pleasant sounding name (I could listen to Lowdell says Hans Albert all day long), the frustration at the lack of progress in profoundly serious cases and the infinite patience needed to even take them on. But as moving as it gets in the struggles to complete cognitive exercises, Incognito never quite managed to engage me as emotionally as I craved, the focus here feels more on the cerebral challenge, perhaps appropriately. Still very much recommended though.