Constellations, Nick Payne’s 2011 award-winning play, will forever remain one of my favourites, and a new work by Payne is always a cause for celebration. Although I wasn’t as impressed with his last two plays as I was hoping to be, Incognito is a triumphant return to form, and sees Payne once again on familiar territory: that of science, the nature of the self, and the fragility of human existence.
Incognito is formed of three interconnected stories: that of pathologist Thomas Harvey, who, in 1955, stole Einstein’s brain in an attempt to uncover the reason for his genius; that of Henry, rendered amnesiac in 1953 after an operation to cure epilepsy went disastrously wrong (this is based on a real patient who lived for fifty years following a brain operation without ever forming new memories); and finally that of Martha, a neuropsychologist in present-day London who is trying to uncover her past.
The characters are united in their quest for meaning and understanding, in the enduring human need and desire for answers, and yet their lives are falling apart: Harvey’s marriage fails because of his obsession with his research; Henry is constantly awaiting his wife so that they can go on honeymoon, but she left him fifty years before; Martha’s work has left her cynical and envying her patients’ amnesia which, for her, appears ‘liberating’ and a kind of ‘freedom’, and yet the selective amnesia she herself engages in about her own past threatens to damage her future. They are all grappling with a profound loss of sense of self, as Harvey finds himself adrift following the breakdown of his marriage, Martha is trying to work out who she is as she both embarks on her first lesbian relationship in her forties and tries to track down her real father, and Henry (though he is arguably unaware) is forever unable to make new memories.
These characters’ stories raise fascinating questions about what it is that makes us who we are, and if we can ever really understand ourselves. What do we think of Henry? Who is he if he has no memories beyond a certain point? His wife and doctor try desperately to make him remember (and the scenes between Henry and his wife Margaret are some of the most moving and heart-breaking in the play), but should we attach so great an importance to it? Henry was once a good pianist, but now he can barely remember a tune; does this mean he is no longer one? Most interesting of all, if Henry cannot remember who he is, yet others can, does that mean he is still that person, or is that self forever lost?
Martha certainly thinks that memory is a vital component of one’s sense of self – or, in an act of self-preservation, she is desperately trying to persuade herself that she does – saying at one point, ‘If you can’t remember who you are then in a way you aren’t really anyone.’ She goes on to describe the brain as something of a placebo, pacifying and calming us into thinking that our lives have meaning, when actually ‘The brain builds a narrative to steady us from moment to moment, but it’s ultimately an illusion. There is no me, there is no you, and there is certainly no self’. This strikes right at the heart of what we believe makes us human: we blindly (naively?) believe (or need to believe) that there are connections, that there is meaning to our lives. The idea of the unknown and the unfathomable is terrifying, and so our brain, argues Martha, deceives us, soothes us, and lulls us into a false sense of security which enables us to go on living. For, if there was no self and no meaning and no connections, what would be the point? Is life just one big illusion?
What is so brilliant about Incognito is that, just as the characters are united in a search for understanding, so are we, and that this happens not just through the profoundly important questions the play raises but also through the structure of the play. Incognito unfolds in a series of brief scenes, rapidly switching from one story to another. In a manner reminiscent of Constellations, the scene changes are lightning-quick, firing like the synapses of the brain. We are required to work hard to follow the different narratives, to make the connections between the scenes that enable our minds to construct the three main characters’ stories. This is a clever example of the brain ‘building a narrative’ as Martha describes it: our brains enable us to fill in the gaps and create these coherent, comprehensible narratives. Yet underlying the restlessness of the piece is the idea that we perhaps shouldn’t be believing what our brain tells us, and that maybe these connections aren’t really there, and the gaps shouldn’t be bridged; is our brain leading us to make too big a leap in order to console us?
Joe Murphy directs his cast of four – who are required to play multiple roles – superbly, emphasising the connections between the stories, and yet also where they disconnect. The links between scenes are both seamless and yet distracting, as our brains are momentarily troubled and have to scramble to keep up. It’s a seductively intriguing blend of dissonance and resonance, as the stories and characters’ lives both remain separate and yet overlap. The cast is superb, taking on multiple roles with ease and able to make the swift changes required, with particularly good work on accents and body language.
Oliver Townsend’s stark set also deserves a mention. Consisting purely of a wooden stage with a piano at either end (on which Henry tries to recall the music he could once play; a haunting evocation of the fleeting nature of memory), above it snakes a lattice of metal bars that call to mind perhaps the complexity of the brain and its endlessly firing synapses; perhaps the connections we make and how they overlap and relate to each other; perhaps the puzzling nature of the play as we do not know where any of its threads might lead; or perhaps their cold, threatening presence reminds us of a cage or a prison in which we are trapped, victims of our own need for meaning and understanding.
Like Constellations, which was about the many different lives open to us had we but made a different choice, Incognito is also deeply philosophical and emotional, asking questions about the nature of human experience and existence. Much of what the characters suffer and what we are therefore forced to think about is incredibly bleak, and yet through these characters’ stories, Payne also captures – paradoxically – what it is that makes our lives worth living: connections. Incognito is informed by our desire for love, in whatever form we might find it; even if the brain is a deceptive storyteller and we persist in believing in an illusion, Payne beautifully reminds us of the moments which make human life meaningful.