Beyond the Brain
Donmar Warehouse | London
directed by Josie Rourke
What is a life? Is it enough just to be alive and well, or do we need something else to make our lives more than just existence? These are some of the questions raised in Nick Payne’s latest play, Elegy. Lorna (Zoë Wanamaker) has a neurodegenerative disease which will kill her, unless she has the affected part of her brain removed – and with it every memory of her wife, Carrie (Barbara Flynn).
The play starts at the end, so we know from the off that Lorna goes through with the operation. We see her regarding Carrie with apathy, and the anguish that causes Carrie. The rest of the play is spent piecing together the moments that came before: their struggle with Lorna’s disease, reading each other poetry, and discussing their options with a doctor, trying to decide whether or not Lorna should have the operation that will save her life. This is poignant stuff anyway, but running the play in reverse, seeing the broken relationship restored, is very powerful. It is a tribute to Lorna’s former life – an elegy.
Although there is a lot talk of neuroplasticity and neurons which may go over some people’s heads, the basics of the science behind Lorna’s disease is easy enough to get a grasp on. This is something Payne is adept at, having introduced us to quantum physics and multiverse theory in the popular Constellations, and an in-depth look at neuroscience in Incognito. It helps having the doctor character (Nina Sosanya) who explains the process to Carrie and Lorna and therefore also to us, and the characters are drawn well enough that this doesn’t feel contrived.
Tom Scutt’s design captures the sense of unease and uncertainty that runs through the play. The black gravel flooring and neat rows of chairs facing the back of the stage create the effect of a waiting room or a church – a kind of purgatory, a place caught between life and death. A cumbersome tree trunk stands in a glass case, occasionally filled with fog. We, the audience, sit high above, judging. The effect of this is very discomforting: the dilemma is impossible to solve. How do you choose between life and love?
The play is filled with religious references – even the title (though not technically a religious word) has religious connotations. Choral singing links scenes together; Carrie discusses her own faith and Lorna’s atheism; and the doctor even refers to a patient who had his faith removed from his brain. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Payne had discussed the play with Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. The undercurrents of religion are present in every moment of the play. The intangible stuff that makes up a person and a life – love, faith, emotion, personality – all of that is played off against science and the body, that which is grounded in physicality.
Although Lorna survives the operation, the title Elegy is incredibly apt. Death weighs heavily on this piece. Though no one actually dies during the play itself, the threat of death hangs over the couple ominously. There is a great sense of sorrow for the death of Lorna’s pre-surgery self – and the death of Lorna and Carrie’s relationship. The doctor describes her own mother’s death at the hands of a similar disease, which makes potential of Lorna’s death seem all the more real.
However, there is something restrained about the performances under Josie Rourke's direction that stops the play being as devastating as it could have been. I would have liked to see more emotion from both characters, given the intensity of their experience. But maybe it’s a good thing that the performance didn’t tug too hard on our heartstrings as it enables us to view their struggle in a slightly more detached, analytical way which represents the relationship between the science of our brains and the experience of our lives.
At the end, the play circles back on itself. This is a cycle that repeats and repeats and repeats. Elegy is a sombre watch, but Nick Payne’s new play shows that he is as clever and as relevant as ever.
photo | ©Johan Persson