FringeReview UK 2016
Josie Rourke directs this new play by Nick Payne, his first full-length since Donmar’s 2013 production of The Same Deep Water As Me. Barbara Flynn and Zoe Wannamaker star alongside Nina Sosanya. Tom Scutt designs.
Barbara Flynn Zoe Wannamaker and Nina Sosanya star in Nick Payne’s Elegy, a new three-hander directed by Josie Rourke. His first fully-dimensioned if not full-length since Donmar’s 2013 production of The Same Deep Water As Me, Payne’s new play – a thrilling and devastating probe at our identity – picks up the threads of science, self and mortality from Constellations and The Art of Dying, marking Elegy his most ambitious play since the former. It’s also just seventy-five minutes, a headlong compression of humanity into a speculative probe.
Tom Scutt’s set is boldly ashen, soft charcoal gravel topped by a series of grim waiting room chairs, cloven by a cloven dead tree encased in museum glass, straight out of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. ‘They took all the trees/And put them In a tree museum’. The refrain ‘Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got/Til’ it’s gone’ provides in this tree the neatest subliminal analogue to a play’s theme I’ve seen on a set. Payne often connects with songs – as in The Same Deep Water As Me – and this whispers a key to the whole. The cleft occasionally glows haloed in a gilt-lit ghosting of identity. Rourke directs with a lean periodicity that suddenly whipcracks, reminding us this deceptively civilised piece will tear.
It’s the near future. Flynn’s Carrie meets Wannamaker’s Lorna – possibly for the last time, in a clinical space. They’re both retired teachers in their sixties, Carrie’s a wavering Christian whose faith’s tested in a seeming erasure of love.
Lorna’s undergone relatively new surgery to remove diseased brain tissue before it rapidly spreads. It’s meant removing memory too, the past twenty-five years, the time she’s been married to Carrie. Lorna knows objectively Carrie’s been supportive the whole period: but Lorna has no memory of it and no love for her either.
The narrative reverses in seven scenes (numbered backwards) duetting with three protagonists save the last. The next three delay intimacy, since Flynn and Wannamaker each pair with Sosanya’s Miriam, a trimly compassionate surgeon whose swervy medic-speak evasiveness shrouds a saving back story. Miriam hints humanity just to the edge of compromise.
It’s her microchip prosthesis that returns Lorna all lost functionality but the super-connectivity of memory is something science can’t sort through. She’s being partially erased, not quite a clone of herself, though parallels with Caryl Churchill’s A Number are inevitable.
There’s a Kubler-Ross process of grieving in Carrie’s loss of her partner whilst that partner’s still healthy. Flynn achingly conveys the flurry and compromise, bargaining and clutching consequent on something as final as Sosanya’s conveying in the next section that Lorna’s requested she doesn’t see her – in fact we’ve just seen them meet so her request’s granted.
Accretions of shared identity seep in with warmer lighting, spotlighting the tree, as a distortion of Bach’s B minor Mass fades in, aurally fraying a shared life. Smoke tellingly drifts in too. There’s a bleakly hilarious moment where Lorna’s denied what she feels her due and lets rip tossing around the assembled chairs – and happily zones out again. Wannamaker’s voice matches the gravel and a hint of comedy’s never far off. Her rages however distorted are zestful things to be switched off.
There’s much play too on mnemonics, anchoring an identity when the gravel shifts with hidden volumes of poetry, and Lorna twice in this ante-penultimate scene (Three) forgets where she is – and the word ‘book’ doubtless sheared from Mitchell’s tree.
Wannamaker’s Lorna is a fantastically mercurial person – we realize why Carrie loves her. Her sensibility’s more robust: her barbs shot through with obsidian humour, black and gleaming. She loves the dark brightly.
Hence Lorna quotes from Douglas Dunn’s Elegies and Christopher Reid’s A Scattering – Wannamaker almost contemptuously pulls a book from the gravel and quotes it perfectly though it’s the wrong book. Carrie essays one, though she’s interrupted: it’s Alice Oswald’s ‘A Wedding’. Flynn invests Carrie with a gentle doggedness; she wins her point. They’re cradling identity in compressed words before it’s gone, telegraphing poetry as a plummet sounding that won’t get rooted out. We already see what’s happened.
We’re moved through a strong Carrie buckled with loss at the beginning though gathering strength, journeying back in her supportive role to the start where again she overcomes her powerless with the onset of Lorna’s disease. Lorna who begins healed is drawn back through her fragility till we end at the beginning as written. Still there’s a twist, a re-run we’ve seen in Constellations, nuancing that first scene with a softer glow, chair side by side. How this plays out, and what anyone present will make of it, is another matter.
There’s a point when Miriam explains when all three assemble for the first time in the ‘last’ scene, organic attempts to experiment with mice resulting in mice psychosis. It’s too much, Lorna explodes again with comic incredulity. The irony is it’s she who wobbles over surgery (‘What life? If it isn’t saving this life’), and Carrie lovingly for it – as near the opening we’re treated to Lorna’s fear of recovering memory: the operation thus not succeeding.
Payne’s script allows Wannamaker and Flynn a swirl of resource; they further humanize a drama already a miracle of compressed tenderness. Payne striates it with arguments like a barium meal. What’s love if it can be organically erased?
Ethics haver warmly in Miriam’s character, her outlining from personal experience the consequences of not pursuing surgery. But several times Carrie says – emulating the old Lorna – she’d preferred her to have died, or she’d kill her. Lorna’s lost their shared badinage too, a mischief that marked her.
In asking fundamental questions of what it’s like to be human Payne rarely sounds expository. Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’ poem wasn’t used but its last two lines with their qualifications seem even more telling: ‘to prove/Our almost-instinct almost true:/What will survive of us is love.’