16 June 2014
Not every playwright can write a ground-breaking, crowd-pleasing masterpiece each time they try. Even Shakespeare wrote plays which could fairly be called average. Most modern playwrights don’t produce a catalogue as extensive as Shakespeare’s or write consistently well. Many write good plays; fewer write masterpieces. There is nothing particularly insightful about any of this; it’s trite and obvious.
Yet, even so, seeing Nick Payne’s Incognito, now premiering at The Bush Theatre, it’s hard not to be shocked by the realisation that Payne is not the infallible once-a-lifetime genius that his astonishing Constellations suggested he might be.
No. Payne is just bloody good and, best of all, prolific. He is not afraid to write and to try different styles and approaches.
Incognito is not a patch on Constellations and, indeed, is somewhat derivative of that greater work: there are many small scenes; multiplicity of characters; repeated dialogue; scientific themes underlying narrative themes; and a style and form that seeks to emulate or exemplify the scientific theory or theories being examined.
But for all the similarities, there are vast differences too. Incognito is about many different characters and the loose story which connects them; Constellations was about a multi-verse which exists as a result of possible choices. Incognito explores the consequences of knowledge; Constellations the consequences of chance and decision. Incognito focuses on the fluidity of knowledge and understanding and the perspective gained thereby; Constellations examines endless co-existing continuums.
The play’s central concern is about the brain of Albert Einstein. What happens to the brain and why is the dramatic fibre of the piece as, eventually, every character encountered is affected or shaped by those events. Just as Einstein’s work changed the understanding of the Universe, so the fate of Einstein’s brain changes the lives of a dozen or so irrevocably.
Under Joe Murphy’s direction, the performance also echoes the science. At first, the scenes are played distinctly, each severed by light changes and sound effects from the other. But as the story advances, the transitions become less clear until, eventually, new scenes start before the previous scene has entirely finished, before the essence of the earlier scene has dissipated. The audience sees for itself that time is relative.
The concept of the wormhole is less successfully explored, although the realisation that some of the characters use shortcuts to get through life (deliberately or otherwise) and don’t get to benefit from the sights and experiences of longer journeys is carefully built and intricately supported in the narrative.
Less successfully, the actors are kept Incognito. Perhaps someone somewhere thought this was an inspired idea, but when four actors play a multitude of roles it is useful to let the audience identify who the actors are. Naming them is not sufficient. As the play demonstrates, a person is made of more than just a name.
So while one knows that the play featured Paul Hickey, Amelia Lowdell, Alison O’Donnell and Sargon Yelda one does not know who played the bi-sexual clinical neurologist Martha to tremulous effect or which actor shouted way too much as various loud men but who managed the singularly difficult feat of playing the man stuck in a perpetual loop (rather like Finding Nemo’s Dory, he constantly phases out and starts with a blank expression, his memories denied him), which actress had the curious Australian accent and the good Scottish one or who played the man obsessed with Einstein’s brain. They remain frustratingly incognito.
There is an impressive set from Oliver Townsend and while it undoubtedly conveys some meaning, quite what escaped me. A beautiful wooden floor made out of interlocking polished beams, a metal framework that sits around a cavity which could almost be brain-shaped, perhaps it is, and two upright pianos, which the Dory man plays occasionally. It looks fabulous. But does it help understand the play? Not in the slightest.
There is a great deal to like in this production. Payne’s writing is intriguing and the pace never really flags. It is a good play, just not a brilliant one.
And in both conception and execution it relies too heavily on gimmicks.
Payne’s great skill is in beautifully crafted dialogue which illuminates character. But he can tell fabulous stories (Blurred Lines, If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet) and write miracles of theatrical bliss (Constellations) too.
He is a remarkable voice of English theatre and well worth supporting.