nabokov, Live Theatre, HighTide Festival Theatre in association with The North Wall
Live Theatre, Newcastle
Plays with science at the core which engage us intellectually and emotionally are rare birds; those which do so successfully are rarer still. Churchill's A Number (2002), Complicité's A Disappearing Number (2000) and David Auburn's Proof (2000) spring to mind, all three based on mathematical themes, and now along comes Nick Payne's Incognito which takes in brain surgery, pathology and neuropsychology as it explores identity and memory.
Three stories set in three different places at different times (Princeton, New Jersey in 1955 when pathologist Thomas Stoltz Harvey steals Einstein's brain; Bath in 1955 as Henry undergoes prioneering brain surgery and London now as neuropsychologist Martha attempts to rewrite her past) interweave to throw light on the central themes: what is identity, how does memory define us and what is the function of the brain?
About half way through the play one of the characters, Martha, says something very significant: "If you can't remember who you are then in a way you aren't really anyone."
There are 21 characters, played by just four actors (two male, two female) dressed in the same contemporary clothes throughout against a set (designer Oliver Townsend) which is essentially a bare stage with just a few items of furniture, three piano stools and a piano with its front removed so we can see its workings, surrounded by a complex of vertical and horizontal stainless steel struts which suggested to me at any rate the intricate structure of the brain.
It's a very demanding piece: it's demanding on the actors who have to switch character, accent and time period in a fraction of a second, not just once but constantly throughout; it's demanding on the director and the whole creative team who must facilitate these rapid changes and it's demanding on the audience who must keep up and exercise their own short term memory to link to the previous scenes in the storylines based in clues provided by accent, character or even simply a name.
The cast and creatives certainly rise to the challenge. In many ways they—Paul Hickey, Amelia Lowdel, Alison O'Donnell and Sargon Yelda—give what is essentially a masterclass in character acting. Their near-instantaneous changes are spot-on and remarkably soon in the 90-minute piece the audience are following the quick-fire changes.
Intellectually demanding though it is, Incognito is definitely not without emotion. We are caught up in these people's lives: we may not always warm to them, although we certainly do to Henry, played with joyous innocence by Sargon Yelda, but their situations do resonate with us. There is even a leavening of humour which helps to draw us in.
It's the kind of play which stays with you long after you've left the theatre. Definitely a must see!
Reviewer: Peter Lathan