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Elegy review at Donmar Warehouse, London – ‘a thought experiment’

Barbara Flynn and Zoë Wanamaker in Elegy, Donmar Warehouse, Photo: Johan Persson

When we talk about love we usually talk about the heart, the muscular pump in our chests, but as Nick Payne’s Elegy shows love lives in the mind, or rather the brain for the two are distinct.

Another in a series of works about science and the self, following 2012’s hugely successful Constellations and 2014’s Incognito, Elegy is many things at once. It’s a primer in neuroscience – there is a lot of talk about axons, myelin sheaths and neuroplasticity – a thought experiment, and an exercise in speculative fiction, as well as a moving, tender account of two women, Carrie and Lorna, who met and married in later life, and what happens when one of them is gradually undone by a degenerative condition, holes forming in her memory.

Theirs is an awful predicament but they are offered a no less awful solution. There are ways of mending Lorna’s mind and saving her life – for her condition will eventually kill her, though it will rob her of dignity first – but it will come at a cost. They can remove the diseased parts of her brain, they can use neural prosthetics to make her whole again, to make her function, but to do so would be to remove every trace of ever having known her wife, ever having loved her. Is her survival worth becoming, in essence, a different person?

Payne’s play takes the form of an intricate three-hander. Barbara Flynn and Zoe Wanamaker play Carrie and Lorna and Nina Sosanya plays the doctor who outlines their options to them, while also explaining why her own mother, when faced with a similar choice, decided against undergoing the treatment.

This is a play of ideas in more than one sense. It continually asks questions of its characters and its audience, about faith, love, aging, and identity. Is suffering a natural part of life? Are we the same person we were five years ago, 10 years ago, 20? These are the kind of questions that will kick around your head for days – that will lay in wait for you.

Josie Rourke’s production reunites Payne with his Constellations designer Tom Scutt; this time instead of a stage filled with balloons, there is a great tree housed in a glass box, its trunk cleaved in two. It’s beautiful image if a little literal – a tree of life and knowledge, split in two. That aptness recurs throughout the production: the women are both teachers; Alice Oswald’s poetry threads through the piece, like a trumpeter.

In may ways it’s a pleasure to see this story love and loss play out between two women. Flynn and Wanamaker are brilliantly cast on the Donmar’s part and all three performers seem comfortable with the rhythms of the text, but it’s Flynn who ruffles things up a bit, who brings something raw to a production, that while admirable, intelligent, contemplative and impeccably researched, feels a little too clean.

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Intelligent, dilemma-posing play about memory, identity, loss and love