Donmar Warehouse, London – until 18 June 2016
SCIENCE AND THE DISAPPEARING SELF
Suppose neuroscience could cure creeping brain deterioration by taking out whole networks of decaying neurons and replacing them with silicon, guaranteeing functionality, but wiping years of memory. Would you say yes – for yourself or a loved one – as the price of avoiding undignified decline? How frightening is it for the patient to contemplate losing “what binds me to me”, as Zoe Wanamaker’s Lorna puts it in this brief, brilliant, alarming piece? And how wrenching for a long-term spouse to find herself looked at with a stranger’s dispassionate, judging distaste?
Amnesia and dementia are preoccupying theatres right now. Only weeks ago the Donmar did it a larkier way, as Anouilh’s Welcome Home Captain Fox saw a forgetful soldier confronting his unsavoury previous life; the Park had Alistair McGowan forgetting his gay lover and rediscovering painting, in Peter Quilter’s 4000 Days; Florian Zeller’s The Father won Kenneth Cranham an Olivier.
The theme particularly suits theatre with its ability to confuse our sense of reality, time, and the reliability of speakers. And few writers are better suited to it than Nick Payne, whose dreamlike, episodic fugue of a play Constellations had great success, and whose extraordinary Incognito was in my view far better, circling around the fate of Einstein’s brain and giving the pain of forgetfulness voice in the unforgettable line “We are a blip within a blip in an abyss”.
This time Payne is takes on the possibility of deliberately induced, therapeutic amnesia – not (as in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) just to wipe out unwanted exes but to treat disease. The story is told backwards, beginning with an unnerving encounter between Carrie (Barbara Flynn) a retired RE teacher, and a slightly irritated Lorna (Zoe Wanamaker). Carrie is plying a newly discharged Lorna with questions and reminders; we discover that they were happily married, having met in their forties. Yet now in Lorna, not a fleck of memory or affection remains.
Rolling backwards, under Josie Rourke’s tight direction, we see the stages Carrie went through as Lorna became ever more confused, aggressive, angry and unpredictable. This backward travel is brilliantly effective because – after being slightly embarrassed by the galumphing neediness of Flynn’s heartbreakng Carrie, met by Lorna’s scorn at awkward reminders of their love, we gradually get to see and believe in that love. It makes the loss all the more horrifying: we see caring, kindly reassurance from Carrie as the confusion mounts, with Wanamaker – as ever a packet of electric energy – terrifying in bursts of anguished aggression. Then earlier still, the couple face the grim diagnosis together, loving, even joking, firm in their devotion. It is done with shattering credible honesty, the two women deep in tune. We learn too that Lorna was the more reluctant of the two, protesting “This isn’t progress!” “It could save your life!” “But I want THIS life”. And bitterly, we see that the treatment was given the green light under Lasting Power of Attorney by Carrie: who now must suffer most. The philosophical and ethical questions burn deep.
In between , Nina Sosanya as the doctor explains, persuades, speaks of neurons and myelin and axons and how memory cannot be replaced because it is non-linear and associative, though there have been experiments on “mice, rats and zebra fish” which sadly became “psychotic”. Behind them, Tom Scutt’s set is a great glass pillar containing a vast, dead oaktree trunk riven as if by lightning, and intermittently obscured by smoke. A metaphor almost too devastating, as the final moments, seventy minutes in, return us to scene one and a crisp, unemotional Wanamaker rejecting her once-beloved’s yearning for one fond word, a kiss, a sign…
box office 0844 871 7624 to 18 June
principal sponsor : Barclays