Reviews London TheatreWest End & Central Published 6 May 2016

Review: Elegy at the Donmar Warehouse

Donmar Warehouse ⋄ 21st April - 18th June 2016

Brains Vs Minds: Tim Bano reviews Nick Payne’s newest work at the Donmar Warehouse.

Tim Bano
Elegy at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Johan Persson.

Elegy at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo: Johan Persson.

Although we live life floating along some inexorable current, never able to stop time or switch off, we review life in snapshots. Often that’s visual snapshots, looking at photographs, or it’s pulling up memories to watch through the mind’s eye; settling into an old, familiar one of a family picnic somewhere sunny or squirming at a fresh embarrassing one of accidentally throwing a drink over someone you fancy and going red-faced all over again.

But memory is so fallible. So shadowy and deceptive. How do you know if what you are remembering actually happened, or at least happened in the way you remember? Maybe the mind has made it all up. That delusion is easier to comprehend if you think about song lyrics. Some songs you know all the words to. Most songs, however, just exist as little fragments of half-remembered lyrics and tunes.

Elegy thinks about memory – both in terms of remembering bits of life that happened, and in terms of remembering the words to a favourite song or poem. And what happens when those memories are no longer there. Like for Lorna, whose memories of the past 20 years have been cut out of her in an operation, and for Carrie who can still remember their marriage. Memories are deceitful. Often, they’re not exact recollections of something that happened but reconstructions.

Nick Payne’s play does theme very well, but its fractured lines – thoughts that are suggested but not quite articulated – start to grate. That grating matters in the moment of watching, but the play leaves a huge amount of brain food to chew over and over.

Nature vs nurture is one of the big things here, particularly when it comes to the great intangibles like faith, sexuality, memory and love.

Consent and mental capacity is another: Carrie has to make the decision for Lorna whether to allow the operation that will both cure and, in some ways, kill her – or at least kill her memories and large chunks of her personality.

Pain relief, too. Should Lorna just endure the suffering or should she have the procedure? If you have a headache, should you take a pill and get on with the day or is there something more human in enduring the pain? Is it better to suffer the slings and arrows or, by opposing, end them? When Shakespeare wrote this he was talking about Nurofen.

A play with such colossal and universal themes needs a proper good set, and Elegy’s got one. Tom Scutt has done it again. Encased in glass is a giant monolithic trunk of a tree – somewhere between life and death. The clever thing about that is that trees and glass just soak up symbolism. They’re big, meaningful canvases just ripe for audiences to project all their individual associations onto. Trees represent life, they represent nature as opposed to the manmade glass that surrounds it. Branches of trees are like neural pathways. What about family trees, too, and the impossible distinction between traits we inherit and those we form or learn.

This big, withering trunk is cracked down the middle and its innards are not brown and wooden but instead burnished gold. Appearance does not equal substance, as Carrie finds out after Lorna has her operation. Lorna’s surface is the same as always. She has the same face and voice. But her substance, her personality, has changed. And not only does Carrie not know Lorna anymore, Lorna doesn’t even know herself. But then who does?

So Elegy’s also about the impossibility of knowing anyone else and the possibility of never quite knowing oneself. It’s about how two brains and two minds are never the same. From Nick Payne’s brain to my brain. A play about brains.

At the end of the Prestige [spoilers] when it’s revealed that Hugh Jackman’s character has been killing and cloning himself every night, he says ‘It took courage… it took courage to climb into that machine every night… not knowing… if I’d be the man in the box… or the prestige.’ It’s a paradox, which Payne similarly tackles. What happened to Lorna Version 1? All those memories and everything she was has been scooped out of her brain but where has that personality gone? Has it died?

Maybe that doesn’t even matter. Because – like the proverbial tree falling in the woods (another symbol one could read into the design) maybe Lorna’s original personality only existed because it was perceived by someone else – by Carrie. Carrie knew her before the operation, and Carrie is the only thing preventing Lorna from being the new person that she is. Carrie is dragging her back into the past, into a world Lorna does not know.

In the character of Carrie – lost and bewildered, mourning and yet not quite bereft since Lorna is still alive – we have someone unable to deal with the advances that science is making. Carrie not only stands in for yer average everyday audience member, but she is also the plodding, breathless legal system. Law is always a step behind progress.

Payne’s world is only slightly removed from our own. These are recognisably contemporary minds but transplanted into some near future. Although Lorna’s illness, never quite given its name, is some form of dementia – and that is a huge crisis at the moment – the play doesn’t really seem to be about that. And yet the more interesting themes that pop up aren’t given enough attention either. And when Payne touches on love, or has his characters repeat the word ‘everything’, and when the play tries to map the inexplicable bits of the human mind, it does seem to want to be about everything. Because one’s mind is everything one is. It’s not only personality, but it’s the means with which we perceive everything physical. Lorna reads a poem, and Carrie asks “is it about death”. Lorna replies, “It’s about everything.” So is the play. The play is about brains, in the brain is love and love is everything.

In a huge way, Elegy looks for the intersection of brain and mind. The place where biology becomes philosophy.

Despite being in two minds about the production as a whole, the final scene is a little bit masterful: it’s a verbatim re-enactment of the entire first scene – quite lengthy – as if we’re watching a memory being played out. Even if we can remember the conversation, how can we possibly recall the intonations of every word or the movements someone made as they spoke. The first scene is made fluid by this recollection of it. At the same time, these now familiar words jog our own memories of the beginning of the play.

Payne privileges mind over matter, and points out the incomprehensible inextricability of the two.

Elegy is on until 18th June 2016. Click here for tickets.

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Tim Bano

Tim is a freelance arts writer and theatre critic. He writes regularly for Time Out, The Stage and other publications. He is co-creator of Pursued By A Bear, Exeunt Magazine's theatre podcast.

Review: Elegy at the Donmar Warehouse Show Info


Directed by Josie Rourke

Written by Nick Payne

Cast includes Zoe Wanamaker, Nina Sosanya, Barbara Flynn

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