Review: Elegy, Donmar Warehouse

“What would you choose?”

Irene Cara once declared she was going to live forever. But as advances in medical science enable us to live longer and survive once fatal conditions, the question remains about the quality of the life that remains. Nick Payne’s Elegy, further exploring the neurological theatrical so vividly started in plays like Constellations and Incognito, imagines society in a near-future scenario where the choice can be made to have part of the brain removed and artificially regenerated. The price though, the loss of huge swathes of memory.

Payne pulls no punches in showing us the impact of such a decision as when we meet post-surgery Lorna and Carrie for the first time, the former has no recollection of the latter to whom she has been married for many years. And cast as perfectly as they are here in Josie Rourke’s production in the form of Zoë Wanamaker and Barbara Flynn, Elegy has its achingly affecting moments as the non-linear narrative shows us Lorna as she was, as well as who she is now, and how the contours of her relationship have changed over time, particularly in the face of a degenerative brain disease.

With Nina Sosanya’s doctor Miriam on hand to support the pair, attempting to demystify the medical terminology and keep her own personal experience with the issue at bay, the play ricochets around its central dilemma, of how much is worth sacrificing to carry on living, with stylist elan in front of Tom Scutt’s arboreally-centred design. If it doesn’t quite scale the emotional heights of Constellations, it is because an additional, intertwined strand of Payne’s writing feels frustratingly vague, the mechanics of the procedure at large as it seems to have been rolled out in this society

For instance, one man has opted to have his faith excised and this notion of cosmetic genetic engineering feels ripe for plundering, yet it remains subsidiary to the more didactic struggle that faces Lorna, and indeed Carrie as illness gradually robs her wife of her faculties – either die, or live as someone else, causing an emotional death to your loved one, ‘baby, remember my name…’. An altogether different choice that leaves one wanting more, especially in the thoughtful study of the relationship between memory and identity. Superlatively acted and sensitively directed, Payne could yet afford to go further. 

Running time: 70 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 18th June

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