The Theatreguide.London Review
Donmar Warehouse Theatre Spring 2016
The relationships between brain and mind and between memory and identity are the intriguing subjects of Nick Payne's new play.
Unfortunately, despite the sensitive and inventive efforts of three talented actresses, the play's themes remain intellectual constructs and only intermittently come alive.
In an imagined future that may be nearer than we know, dementia and other brain disorders can be totally cured by very precise surgery, the only downside being that with the excision of diseased brain tissue goes the total loss of memories accumulated over ten, twenty or more years.
But is the person who, for all practical purposes, never had those decades of experiences the same person she was before? Is being free of dementia or Parkinson's or bipolar swings worth becoming someone else?
And what of the friends, family and lovers who belong to the excised years and are now total and possibly unwelcome strangers?
Lorna, a woman of mature years, is falling victim to dementia, and the playwright takes us from occasional lapses of memory to the point where she is still just able to function, understand her condition and make informed decisions. And she decides emphatically that she does not want the surgery, preferring to die as herself than live as someone else.
But her lover of two decades (female, though that is not really relevant) makes the choice for her, and must face the prospect of being rejected by the new person behind Lorna's face.
There are slight echoes of Harold Pinter's A Kind Of Alaska here, though Elegy feels more like one of Oliver Sacks's fascinated but cooly objective narrative accounts of medical oddities.
It may be the sci-fi plot Payne has chosen, or the device borrowed from Pinter's Betrayal of telling the story in reverse chronological order (which seems, as in the earlier play, a distracting gimmick not worth the few sad ironies it reveals), or our own resistance to the whole subject of dementia, but the play's issues and its human story never quite connect, and the playwright's thought-provoking questions remain more theoretical than real.
The problem certainly does not lie in the sterling performances of the three actresses, as guided by director Josie Rourke.
Zoe Wanamaker chillingly depicts the ravages of the disease at various stages while never losing sight of the character's strength and capacity for love, and with quiet subtlety demonstrates the differences between the pre- and post-operative Lornas.
Barbara Flynn garners much of our sympathy as the lover agonisingly watching her beloved decline, making the impossible choice of going against Lorna's wishes to save her, and then facing the horror of losing her anyway.
And Nina Sosanya as a cool and seemingly unsympathetic doctor lets us see that the woman hides behind her technical jargon and mask of objectivity to allow her to do work that has such benefits at such costs.
You may well come away from Elegy thinking hard and debating with your companions about the questions of identity and morality the play raises.
But that thinking will be separate from any emotional effect the play has on you, which itself may be made up more of admiration for the actresses than of empathy with the characters.
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