Nick Payne always seems to find that tender blend of science and soul in his writing, and Elegy is no exception. Directed by Josie Rourke, this play takes us into the near-future where developments in medical science mean that degenerative illnesses, such as dementia and Parkinson’s, can be cured through brain surgery. But there is a trade – for the surgery to be completely successful, memories will be wiped. And the more virulent the disease, the more extensive the memory loss.
That is the dilemma facing Lorna (Zoe Wanamaker). She is ill; she knows she is ill. And she knows she is going to get worse. But the memory she will lose if she chooses to take the operation is twenty years. That means the operation will wipe out her entire relationship with her partner Carrie (Barbara Flynn).
The two only met less than twenty years before – a love that arrived late into their lives, a love neither thought they would ever find. And in that time, they have experienced joy and life that has come to define them. But all that will be lost.
This isn’t a play about will they/won’t they. The chronology in the production is in reverse and we start out understanding that Lorna had the surgery. What we witness, through these snapshots into the past, is how that decision came to be made, and all that has been lost.
But also, what has been gained.
And this is the central dilemma that Nick Payne is placing before us: Which is more important – a life or our life?
Because our lives are our memories. They are our memories and our experiences – good and bad. They define us and colour us in. But is a life, any life, better than none at all? If you have your memory wiped, what elements of us would remain? And, even if much is lost, isn’t there still the opportunity to create new memories, a new you? But, if so, then the tragedy passes from you to those who loved you.
Elegy is moving but there is much gallows humour too. Nick Payne’s dialogue is realistic and spritely, and the acting is flawless. Zoe Wanamaker is terrific as the tempestuous Lorna whose flips between gallows humour and bouts of illness are brilliant and agonising. And Barbara Flynn is marvellous as her partner; her balance of anger and frustration, with compassion and love, is perfect. And together, their chemistry is splendid and utterly convincing.
Nick Payne’s enduring fascination with science is obvious. Yet the details he’s able to weave into the dialogue – silicone chips, neurone transmitters, seeing the brain as a computer that never need diminish – never weigh this production down.
Elegy is short – only 70 minutes long – and full of big questions. But this is a tender, touching production that captures that perfect balance between the heart and the head.
Donmar Warehouse, London to June 18, 2016
1. Carrie (Barbara Flynn) and Lorna (Zoe Wanamaker) by Johan Persson
2. Lorna (Zoe Wanamaker) by Johan Persson