“You took Albert Einstein’s brain?” This line, the central premise of Nick Payne’s Incognito enjoying its world premiere at the Bush Theatre, suggests something farcical. But, despite plenty of humour, the play is a serious meditation on the mind and the body, on the nature of the soul – “If you can’t remember who you are, then you aren’t really anyone”.
Stories of memory and identity are told through snapshots of interlocking narratives across time, with a cast of only four playing many characters. Thom Harvey steals Einstein’s brain to find out if it will yield any scientific secrets; Henry Maison has had a pretty hefty lobotomy, leaving him unable to create new memories – like Leonard in Memento; neuropsychologist Martha is looking for a new relationship. Other characters form links between these three main storylines, usually with only two actors on stage at a time.
Nick Payne draws his characters brilliantly and tightly in a short space of disjointed time. Different time periods allow Payne to play a little with genre: the tight RP accents of Margaret and Henry (1953) suggest a period drama, the relationship between Patricia and Martha (2014) like a modern soap, and the theft of Einstein’s brain (1955 onwards) as if from a sci-fi novella.
Playing up to six characters each, the actors transition seamlessly between their parts. All of them march across the stage during quick blackouts between each scene, fooling the audience into thinking that something has changed on stage; in fact, many scenes consist of the same actors as the previous scene, but so well inhabited are their many characters that it takes some time to realise.
Paul Hickey’s Anthony is one of the best performances, gently playing a neurologist’s dream patient – a man who wakes up in the middle of the night, stabs his wife 11 times and then forgets. His hand gestures imitate the billows of the starlings he talks about; he is asked to name as many animals as he can beginning with ‘s’: he starts with ‘sausage dog’ (a grin at the cheek of his answer), then ‘hedgehog’ (growing confusion), then ‘sh-sh-sh-shoe’ (he spits this third word out with the panic of incomprehension and even slight guilt at knowing that he has done something wrong).
Repetition of lines features heavily, to great effect: many scenes begin innocuously – for example Henry (Sargon Yelda) greeting Margaret (Alison O’Donnell), “Hello my love, where have you been?” But his inability to form memories means that his brain resets every half minute or so, and he greets Margaret in exactly the same way, with exactly the same intonation every time and the many, many repetitions of that line, “Hello my love, where have you been?” start to adopt a penetrating, frustrating quality that turns into the meaninglessness of jamais vu. Margaret’s attempts to get through to Henry, to combat this incessant reset, this ostinato of speech, rises to screeching desperation: O’Donnell shows us Margaret’s frustration excellently.
The four actors perform under a shiny, spiky metal structure, gleaming rods forming interlocking cubes, designed by Oliver Townsend. It looks like a large-scale carbon structure, the molecular models that A-level chemistry students make, to reflect the scientific edge to the play; it looks like a big pergola from a National Trust Garden, perhaps to reflect the stateliness and English charm of the story of Martha and Henry; it looks like the kind of modern sculpture that local councils seem to love putting in public parks.
Beyond amusing details that ground the play in something modern and identifiable, like the fact that it contains probably the first mention of Netflix on a London stage ever, or that one of the characters is dressed in black trousers and a yellow jumper exactly like in Star Trek, beyond these details is a funny, reflective and tightly-wrought play. Galen dissected the brains of apes to understand cerebral anatomy better, Da Vinci performed autopsies on humans to try and find the location of the soul; Payne’s Incognito continues in this vein of study, albeit in a less hands-on way, to study the precarious connection between mind and body.