By Stu Nimmo (Guest Blogger for April)
A Live Theatre, nabokov & HighTide Festival Theatre production in association with The North Wall
I lucked out big style, I was allowed to see Incognito twice; the dress rehearsal on Friday afternoon, and a preview performance on Saturday evening.
As a first time Live Theatre blogger I rocked up for the dress rehearsal unsure of what to expect. I knew none of the people present and entered feeling nervous and a bit of an imposter, but I was quickly put at ease. Above and beyond the combatants – writer, director, actors etc, there were several people scattered around the theatre all waiting with increasing anticipation for the dress to start.
When it began I was utterly absorbed for 90 minutes. I left feeling very pleased, downright jammy, to be April’s Live Theatre guest blogger.
Incognito Preview Review
You’re nothing: a lie.
Fortunately that revolting personality you have doesn’t exist, it’s a fabrication, a narrative your brain generates to try to make sense of the world and to deliver the illusion you’re in control, unfortunately it’s lying to you even more if you’ve got a nice personality.
At least that is one of the identity crisis inducing propositions thrust forward into your deceitful noggin’ by Nick Payne’s excellent new play about memory, identity and our concept of humanity.
Don’t let this bleak stuff put you off, Incognito is a brilliant play which had me utterly engrossed from start to finish, both times I saw it.
It’s complicated – not just your brain, but the play is too – 3 stories which take place over decades, set in different time periods across numerous different locations, with 21 roles played seamlessly by 4 actors all on a set comprising piano:1, seats:2, grid with hole in: 1.
Each of the 3 stories’ central characters are trapped by their brains, one deals with Thomas Harvey, an American pathologist who becomes obsessed with Albert Einstein’s brain (in 1953 he steals it, slices it up and then studies it for decades), another deals with Henry Maison, a chap who suffers permanent short term memory loss after a brain operation in 1950s England (he can remember before the operation, but cannot remember what happened 2 minutes ago, he becomes trapped in the present ) and the third, contemporary story focuses on Martha, a clinical neuropsychologist studying amnesia who struggles with her own identity as a result of her understanding of how the brain lies to us.
Each story shows how the brain’s deception can impact the lives of the characters in each story. The actors give all of the characters life and pain and pleasure, their stories are strong without overwhelming each other.
Thomas Harvey’s obsession takes over his life damaging those he loves, and Einstein’s family – his brain’s deception pushes him into a life of alienation and notoriety.
Henry Maison’s predicament is never ending, delivered with humour and pathos he is not portrayed only as a victim, he is a chap always wanting to move forward in his life with his wife Margaret. It is, of course, impossible not to feel deeply for him.
Martha’s identity crisis leads her to make massive changes in her life and a tendency towards secrecy. She articulates much of the brain science, her bleak description of how the brain works and later, how this knowledge makes her feel bring the darkest moments to the play.
The 3 stories are carefully introduced and then interwoven with increasing rapidity. Scene and location changes – which are delivered almost entirely through excellent acting (and the various accents used by the actors) – take us back and forth across the Atlantic, the USA and the UK with remarkable efficiency. This change of location and storyline becomes ever quicker, in some cases with the final line of one scene being delivered and followed instantly by the first line of the next scene – delivered sometimes by the same actor slipping seamlessly into an entirely different character. The whole cast deliver all of their roles and these scene changes with panache and focus, keeping characters distinctive, momentum high and providing real pacey excitement.
A grid like structure surrounds the stage, a hole in the grid allows the stage to poke through, possibly reflecting a hole in the logic of the brain. This simple but precise approach is continued on stage too, with the erstwhile piano and two seats all that is present.
The episodic structure of intercut storylines, allied to the distinctive, grinding music and sound and the relentless momentum emphasise the themes of memory loss, brain function and gaps in comprehension.
Director Joe Murphy has grabbed the structure of the text by the throat and created a thrilling ride – a play which excites and fascinates, one which will stay with me, and a learning experience dealing with issues fundamental to us all.
This is a play which poses questions, it asks you, who do you think you are? And if you actually have an answer, it suggests you’re wrong. It questions what a human is? What a soul or individual is? It questions every perception you’ve ever made about yourself, other people or human nature. It leads you down a path which raises questions about the validity of moral judgements and ethics – are we even in a position to make such judgement calls – our brain is a liar, how can we trust it?
I really enjoyed Incognito and am hugely impressed by writer Nick Payne’s ambition, ideas, craft and expertise.
Incognito currently has its World Premiere at HighTide Festival Theatre and returns to Live Theatre Tuesday 22 April to Saturday 3 May, I strongly advise seeing it.
Nick Payne will be discussing the play with two specialists in Neuroscience in what promises to be a fascinating Post Show Discussion at 9.30pm after the performance on Wednesday 30 April.