nabokov — Incognito (2014)

It’s not the big ideas at work in Incognito that hook you; they’re swirling in there, amidst the cast of variously-accented characters, the parallel plots of brain theft, sexual identity, and memory loss, but–fittingly–they’re only a part of the play’s make-up. It’s the emotional truth of it that sticks the landing.

Loss is the currency that most of these stories trade in: loss of memory, but also loss of identity (in more than one manner), loss of certainty, loss of control. Nick Payne’s play works to keep the ground beneath its characters constantly shifting. There is no surety here in a life’s work, or in a lifetime’s self-perception. Like memory itself Payne shows us through overlaid examples that everything we know and cherish (including our selves) is a gestalt of ceaselessly shifting pieces; infinitesimal, unknowable elements that comprise life at the scale we recognise it. What happens when we are, knowingly or unknowingly, confronted with that reality is the crucible of Incognito. That the play draws poignancy and humour from this difficult place is testament to a finely balanced text and some truly astounding performances.

Accents are the shortcut to understanding which of the half-dozen or so characters played by each actor is before you at any one time, but the art goes deeper - each incarnation imbued with a unique posture and set of mannerisms. The retinue brought to life by Sargon Yelda in particular runs the gamut from broadly comic to authentically haunted. It’s a dizzying masterclass and breathtaking to behold.

The staging also has its own tics. The brief transitions between scenes swell here with piano and there with birdsong - the chatter of starlings that form the play’s central metaphor: persons and lifetimes as the temporary arrangements of circumstance. There is no explicit nod to it in his play, but it makes one wonder whether Payne has any interest in or affinity for Buddhist thinking.

Our brains are constantly, exhaustively working overtime to deliver the illusion that we’re in control, but we’re not. The brain builds a narrative to steady us from moment to moment, but it’s ultimately an illusion. There is no me, there is no you, and there certainly is no self; we are divided and discontinuous and constantly being duped.

Here the Buddha and Payne’s Martha Murphy agree, and it’s perhaps this that made Incognito feel a warm play to me where it might also be open to the allegation of pessimism about the human condition: the narrative construction retains the courage of its conviction, and bears out the truth that fleeting beauty is no less beautiful.

Adam Wood @adam