11th June, 2016, matinee
What if someone who you have been in love with over the last 25 years does not reciprocate that love anymore because they cannot remember you? That is the situation Carrie is in after Lorna loses a large section of her memories after an operation to stop an unspecified disease. Apparently set in the near future where this sort of procedure is if not normal then more regular, the play is about the possibilities of science and complexity of the brain. But the wonders of medical science are not triumphant here and for all of the doctor character’s medical talk about the billions of neurons in our brain etc. I didn’t sit there feeling the excitement of science. The focus more largely questions the personal, possibly devastating effects this has on the individuals involved.
But even if it is perhaps difficult to connect directly to this specific situation, it is easier to connect with Carrie and the fear that someone might stop loving you or not even be able to recognise you. She is down-to-earth and pragmatic. She resorts to saying ‘fuck’ a lot – a word which encompasses a lot when there’s not much consolable hope in her situation. But she also has a lot of faith, in God, in science and in her love for Lorna. Barbara Flynn is very believable as her, throwing her arms up and pacing to show her frustration and helplessness but never overplaying her anger perhaps because she has faith: ‘I have faith because I waver’ she says. She believes in having hope that they can live like they did before the operation but there’s no escaping that it is tragic that their whole life together has been erased by Lorna’s memory, leaving Carrie feeling that it might have been less horrible if Lorna had died. Lorna on the other hand is airy, seemingly more spontaneous and more accepting. Zoe Wanamaker excels: barefoot, she jumps quickly from knowing where she is to forgetting herself. At one point she runs around the stage throwing chairs like a child, like someone wanting to regain control of her life. Together they roll about on the floor and share the same dark sense of humour and (in their ordinary, everyday clothes) are the normal couple who have been put in this extreme but perhaps one day commonplace medical and ethical dilemma.
We first meet them after the operation: Lorna can’t remember Carrie but she seems content leisurely sipping a drink and implying that she wants a divorce so she can move on without Carrie. This is where the structure became unstuck for me. After reading Matt Truman’s review last night the play is (mostly) set in reverse chronology, something which I completely missed when watching it. The next scene is Carrie talking to the doctor asking for another meeting with Lorna, although taking the reverse chronology into account it makes the first scene that meeting, probably (poignantly) their last. I understood, of course, that there was a jump back in time later on to before the operation where we see Lorna and Carrie choose readings for their wedding and discussing the operation etc., but the exact structure was, to me, unclear. The last scene (apparently not in the text) is a repeat of the first, a sort of coming of circle. You see the scene with new resonances and it’s much more poignant after knowing how in love they once were. But, although perhaps cynical of me, I felt it was a slightly weak ending and despite how much depth there is in this short poetic piece, it also feels lacking in denying a more hopeful ending, or any ending at all really.
Nina Sosanya is very strong in a role which is not dissimilar to ones she has played before. Professional and cerebral but also fairly personable, like her character in W1A, Sosanya (along with the whole cast) has some very tricky language to negotiate, self-interrupting and overlapping.
Indeed, Payne uses language in a specific way. Seeing Blue/Orange last week, Penhall shows characters carefully using PC language in order to tread around difficult subjects and cover their backs as so to stay professional. Meaning can be easily misconstrued. Likewise, Payne’s characters go back on themselves, restart sentences, and interrupt thoughts with new ones. The doctor, Miriam, replies with rehearsed medical patter as well as trying to respond to the individual on a human level. Again, meaning is something to be wary of and needs negotiating with language.
In this sense, Payne perhaps disconnects language and meaning, two things (like Lorna and Carrie?) which are usually so intrinsically married together. It is one of the many binary aspects in the play which are separated. There’s a moment where Carrie is aghast at being told by Miriam that they erased the part of someone’s brain which held their faith. It makes us question the abstract notions of love and faith and whether they are held in the heart or in the brain. Are we just made up of our memories? Are love and faith more tangible than we know? Where will the characters go from here and will Lorna be truly happy?
Tom Scutt’s set reflects the dark tone of the play. A tree trunk is preserved in a glass case in the background but there is a huge split down the middle. Like Lorna, it’s preserved but no longer whole. The glass half reflects the characters and the gravelled floor (silent to move on) only half leaves footprints barely for a few seconds. It leaves a ghostly effect.
The more I think about it, Elegy is a play which provokes discussion not only about the advances of science but also loss and love and death. It’s full of thoughts and images, as is Josie Rourke’s well-paced production and Tom Scutt’s intriguing design, which are clever and poetic, and ask big questions of the heart and about the brain. But I wanted it to come to something much more colourful, hopeful and cathartic than it did here.
Elegy plays at the Donmar Warehouse until 18th June.