What makes us who we are? It’s a favourite question in theatre, with countless writers exploring in numerous ways the slippery nature of identity and selfhood. Nick Payne’s latest play (now at the Bush after premiering at this year’s HighTide Festival) goes straight for the head – specifically, the brain. But this mature, beautifully intricate piece has plenty of heart as well.
The human brain is a mystery – a densely packed organ of neural tissue from which stems everything we process as meaningful, moving or traumatic. But how, and why, are questions we’re still asking. Payne gives us three parallel stories, arranged in elliptical fragments, which explore this thirst for knowledge and how we try to make sense of ourselves.
In New Jersey, 1955, Thomas Stoltz Harvey takes Albert Einstein’s brain, triggering an obsession with finding genius in its tissue that rules his entire life; in England, also in the 1950s, Henry Molaison has surgery for epilepsy that destroys his ability to form new memories; and in the present, clinical neuropsychologist Martha struggles to redefine herself after a divorce.
These events takes place beneath an intricate metal lattice of bars that looms over the cast. It’s an effective, ever-present reminder of the brain’s infinite complexity – of the impossibility of tracking a single route to what makes us tick. It echoes the lack of a fixed ground of being in the play’s structure, as actors switch abruptly between characters in scenes that frequently overlap.
Here, nothing is permanent: memories loop, dialogue recurs and narratives break up. We’re left with a mosaic of moments that glance off each other. The famous case of ‘H.M’ – which changed the face of neuroscience – connects through family to Martha’s. But there are no tidy endings, however much we strain for them. It feels like we’re watching the electrical impulses of the brain in action.
The four-strong cast are superb, switching effortlessly between past and present, and different accents, as – under Joe Murphy’s sensitive direction – they fully mine the humour and pathos of Payne’s script. The grand quests of scientific inquiry collapse into painful moments of heartbreak and very human confusion.
At one point, one of Martha’s patients tells her that imagination is what makes us more than we are; the optimistic counterpoint to her observation to Patricia, the solicitor she’s dating, that our sense of self is simply a fiction created by our brain to enable us to function. She prefers to see herself as a machine rather than hurt like a person.
But that’s where the bruising humanity of Payne’s play rests, illuminating our compulsive need to make these connections, to reach out to others and to struggle onwards. Trying to bridge the contradictions in their lives is how his characters forge themselves, even if they fail. When H.M manages to play just a few chords on a piano, it’s the saddest of triumphs.