Features Q&A and Interviews Published 5 May 2014

Grey Matter

Nick Payne on memory, time, Einstein's brain and his new play Incognito.
Miriam Gillinson

Nick Payne likes to apologize. During our interview, Payne repeatedly corrects or undercuts himself. According to Payne, his answers are not clear enough and his ideas are not interesting enough. “I’m sorry I’m waffling”, “I’m going slightly off topic”, “This is may not be all that interesting” or “Again, I’m not being very clear”. He is the Hugh Grant of the playwriting world; self-deprecating, humble but also super smart, uber successful and a right old charmer.

Ask Payne one question and you are met with a tidal wave of answers. The Yorkshire-born playwright is tricky to quote since he talks in very long sentences which tumble into each other and never really end. He finds it hard to pitch his plays (“I’m not very good at the treatment bit”) or summarise them succinctly. He’s tough to pin down and spends most of his working life interrogating the grey areas which lurk between all that we hold certain or true.

Constellations, which bagged Payne an Evening Standard Award in 2012, is the perfect example of Payne’s refusal to draw a line under anything. The play entertains the possibility of a multi-verse and riffs on the idea of alternate selves circling around alternate fates; think Sliding Doors with shitloads of doors and much better dialogue. The writing (and lighting) crackles and snaps, as Payne jumps skillfully between endless worlds of spawning possibilities. There is little to hold onto other than the love, in all its different dimensions, that the two central characters feel for each other.

It is a futile task trying to link together Payne’s absurdly extensive oeuvre (the man has not yet turned 30). Payne’s first main stage play, If There is I Haven’t Found it Yet, premiered at the Bush in 2009 and is about climate change and the conflict between the big and little issues in life. Wanderlust examines the clawing relationship between sex, porn and intimacy. Payne’s Donmar debut, The Same Deep Water as Me, taps into Britain’s compensation culture and his brilliant Shed show, Blurred Lines, blows open the prevailing sexism that still clings to the entertainment industry and British culture at large.

The only thing that connects these varied works is Payne’s ability to keep on pushing at his ideas, until his questions eventually dry up. Discussing his writing process, Payne sounds a little like an infatuated teenager: “I fall in love with the material. I don’t know anything about it and it completely seduces me and I’m bowled over and curious. I become a little kid really.”

Payne’s most recent play, Incognito, opened to cracking reviews at the Hightide Festival and shortly opens at The Bush. It is being marketed as “a dazzling new play about what it means to be human”. That might be true, but Incognito started out as a play about time. This was Payne’s original pitch to Live Theatre and Nabokov – but then Payne did “a little bit more digging” and stumbled across something “much more interesting”.

The seed for Incognito was actually planted during the run of Constellations. Whilst most people might be celebrating down the pub, Payne was “dipping in and out of Einstein’s biography”. This led Payne to the real-life account of the autopsy doctor who stole Einstein’s brain in a bid to learn more about the origins of genius. This in turn led Payne to neurosurgery and the seminal case of patient HM: a man who had pioneering brain surgery and was left with a 45 second memory span for the rest of his life. Add to this “six months, eight months, twelve months to a year” of research, and the fiendishly clever and “fuck I hope it’s funny” play Incognito was born.

#3 -® Bill Knight

Incognito involves three inter-linking strands: the story of the doctor who stole Einstein’s brain (and stashed it in his basement), the case study involving short-term memory patient HM, and a fictional plot-thread about a female neuro-psychologist grappling with her identity. It sounds bloody complicated. That, according to Payne, is the whole idea: “I think the first section is mostly baffling. It doesn’t really make any sense. And then by the end of the play, it all makes complete sense. In my head, the idea was that it was like the experience of the brain making sense of the world.”

Payne has become increasingly attracted to non-linear plays; “I like those plays set in rooms and I’ve written those plays but I actually find them quite hard to write”. Instead, Payne has started gravitating towards more formally experimental work: “The way I understand life is not linear. Memory is not linear. It’s not a linear process. It doesn’t work in a linear way.”

Incognito returns, in tighter and tighter circles, to the connection between memory and identity. One of Payne’s characters suggests: “If you can’t remember who you are then, in a way, you aren’t really anyone”. Payne has a slightly different take on the issue. He discusses the moving case of BBC pianist Clive Wearing, who lost his short term memory but still greeted his wife with a happy hug every day: “Every time he saw his wife he’d be absolutely delighted and he would hug her and kiss her and he couldn’t believe his luck. I suppose, in a weird way, that makes me think he was a certain kind of person.”

Payne considers another universe with another Clive Wearing who reacts in a totally different manner: “There is another guy that happens to and, actually, he doesn’t hug his wife in the same way. The makes me think [Clive] was a certain type of person. So the non-scientist in me – the bit that is not being rational – thinks that, when you have your memory wiped, something probably survives. Something is still in there that make you a certain person.”

Payne can’t resist playing around with the idea a little longer. If our memories are so fragile then how can we hold onto any solid sense of self? Perhaps, reflects Payne, the knack of living a good life is the ability to forget: “I don’t know how you live with the knowledge of this. I don’t know how you carry it with you day to day, thinking, we’re just two pounds of material inside the skull and if the tiniest bit of that mass is chipped away we’ll never be the same person again.” There’s a heavy pause and then a chuckle: “So, yeah, I suppose once it’s done I try not to think about it ever again.”

Incognito runs at the Bush Theatre 14th May – 21st June.

Photos: Bill Knight.


Miriam Gillinson

Miriam writes theatre reviews for Time Out High and her own blog, Sketches on Theatre. She writes about children's theatre for the Guardian and is a senior reader for Sonia Friedman Productions and a Quality Assessor for The Arts Council.



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