The choice between love and survival is the dilemma at the heart of Nick Payne’s short play Elegy (Donmar Warehouse) directed by Josie Rourke.
Zoe Wanamaker in Elegy

Elegy is set in the near future and in the first scene, we meet Lorna, who has recently been discharged from hospital after a brain operation and who treats her partner Carrie as a total stranger. Both women are ex-teachers in their 60s and have been married for 20 years.

Through the use of reverse chronology, we learn that Lorna had a degenerative brain condition and that she has been cured by a doctor, Miriam, through a form of neural prosthesis. In effect, that means that two decades of memories have been wiped from her brain through the replacement of a network of neurons and it is the implications of this that Payne examines.

Indeed, Payne, who wrote the award-winning Constellations, has skilfully created a highly emotive situation that asks penetrating questions about the brain’s emotional and neurological connections and presents us with an intriguing paradox –  a restorative treatment that severs the life-sustaining bonds of love. But, having declared its hand so early on, the play has no dramatic aces up its sleeve. In a series of cool, deliberative scenes with nervy incomplete dialogue, we see Lorna’s dementia like degeneration manifest.

Although the characterisation is insubstantial and Payne never fully pursues the ideas he has imaginatively set up, the performances are first rate. Zoe Wanamaker is excellent as the pensive, gamine Lorna who has opted for a compromised life over death, while Barabra Flynn, making a welcome return to the West End, impresses as Carrie, strongly conveying the pain of exclusion by her partner and impotence that derives from being a daily witness of her decline.Good support is provided by Nina Sosanya as the efficient, compassionate doctor Miriam.

Tom Scott’s imposing design of an oak tree inside a glass case, split in two makes the audience think of what it must be like to have a wedge driven into the pulpy matter of one’s brain.

This then is a poignant human drama with a particular sting in the tail about terminal illness.

Runs until Saturday 18 June at Donmar Warehouse.

Box office: 0844 871 7624

Last modified: April 7, 2021

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