Nick Payne’sElegy throws up the mother of all dilemmas. Given the choice between death and the chance to live without the very fabric of our past, would we be prepared to reset the factory default option?
It’s an emotive subject as scientists and doctors spend their time investigating ways to prolong life and alter the existence we have. Genetic engineering and synthetic body parts, the bionic man is here but is it something we’d all readily embrace?
I found Elegy, which opened on Thursday at London’s Donmar Warehouse, utterly engrossing but, at just 70 minutes, profoundly unsatisfactory. It’s fine for city dwellers to pop along for a quick hour-plus show but, for theatre-goers from outside the capital, is an expensive night out with the travel time probably exceeding the experience.
What Payne does provide is fascinating, thought-provoking, and wonderfully acted. I just wanted more of it. By the conclusion I felt there were still matters unresolved and a lot of questions unanswered.
Barbara Flynn and Zoë Wanamaker play Carrie and Lorna, two former teachers who, we learn, were a couple who fell in love late in life.
But Lorna begins to suffer mood swings, memory lapses and violent episodes. She is diagnosed with a disease (we’re not told what but the implication is possibly some sort of dementia) and it is killing her.
Her specialist, Miriam, (Nina Sosanya who talks in cold, clinical half-sentences as though she herself is half human) works at a private clinic at the cutting edge of neuroscience and she can play god. Surgeons can replace part of her brain with a microchip – but the terrible side effect is that Lorna will lose the last 20 years of her memory.
Gone will be her entire relationship with Carrie but at least she will be alive. What’s more, the op has never been known to fail.
What would you choose? Death or wipe out your life, experiences, relationships and memories – the very things that make you who you are – and have fresh start, your brain pretty much a blank canvas. You can remember how to tie your shoes but wouldn’t have a clue about DVDs, computers or Game of Thrones.
Barbara Flynn’s Carrie, who was the initial driving force behind the operation, is now bereft. The life she had has died and there seems little hope of a second chance of happiness. She’s emotional, angry, frightened and desperate. The love of her life has gone and been replaced with a stranger. It seems terribly cruel.
Wanamaker’s Lorna is grateful but empty. “I want to love you!” cries Carrie. “I don’t see anything when I look at you. It doesn’t mean anything to me” replies Lorna. “I’m not that person. I’m better. I have a life now”.
Both women give powerful performances, Flynn’s is full of emotion and rage while Wanamaker, post op, is passionless, almost inhuman.
As a play it shows us the preamble and aftermath of this terrible, life-altering, decision but I greedily wanted to know more. Would the women re-establish a relationship, would they find love, was it worth it or or was price too high? So many questions.
Josie Rourke’s stylish and atmospheric production plays in a half-light with the split trunk of a giant tree in a glass case taking centre stage. Occasionally the case fills with smoke. I’m not entirely sure why but it looks very arty.
Elegy runs at The Donmar until June 18.
Nick Payne’s new play, Elegy, is engrossing, thought-provoking and powerfully acted but frustratingly brief.