Red Stitch’s latest production Incognito by UK playwright Nick Payne is simply sublime! Payne has created a reputation for exploring relationships through the backdrop of science; His famed two hander Constellations told the story of a couple through various multiverses, If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet explored climate change and Wanderlust has a female GP exploring sex and intimacy as its lead protagonist. In Incognito, Payne has centred on three main story threads in different time periods and locations, all relating to neuroscience and memory. The first chronicles Thomas performing an autopsy on Albert Einstein at Princeton in 1955, stealing this brain and sparking a lifelong obsession. The second centres on Henry undergoing brain surgery in mid 1950s England to cure his fits but changing his life, and his wife Margaret’s life, irrevocably. The final plotline takes place in present day London where clinical psychologist Martha is trying to cope with a marriage breakdown and her own sexuality.
For such a complicated, involved story the set design required had to allow for ample and uncontained variety of movement by the cast. This intention was marvellously created by Chloe Greaves, who created one of my favourite Red Stitch sets for The River. Its symbolically abstract form features a central piano with its top exposed, and suspended from the ceiling. The piano wires sprawl outward and upwards to reach the ceiling and fall down the blackened walls and exposed doorways (and actually stretched outside to our entrance corridor). As the play progressed we realised not only the significance of music to Henry’s story but also how the strings represented perhaps the inner current wires of the brain, perhaps those that were faulty in various individuals or connected to their work. Perfectly brilliant. The lighting design by Tom Willis cleverly used exposed globes hanging suspended all over the space at various levels for a lingering haunting effect – and timed to illuminate not just the action but sometimes maybe the working mechanics of those wired brain currents. Fabulous. Costuming (also by Chloe Greaves) was kept simple and unchanging yet cleverly appropriate to the changing switches required by the cast in a variety of time periods. The accompanying sound design by The Sweats didn’t overplay every scene change thank goodness as some were only 3 minutes long, but there was some poignant underplaying which really added to the mood of the tale and play overall, and the piano reverberations in the final scene was extremely evocative and a great way to finish.
These complex tales are transposed on stage using only four actors who play four or five characters across all story threads, requiring altered mannerisms, voice and accents to make the changes apparent. Co-directors Brett Cousins and Ella Caldwell, together with their cast, have cleverly crafted the movement and tone brilliantly well, making sure each story is equally compelling and absorbing as the last. The scene switches were seamless– sometimes mid sentence and using one actor from the preceding scene walking across and into a new space or same space with different intent. Purposeful movement centring around the central grand piano and alongside the doorways meant we were able to travel clearly from place to place and was benefited by the inspired lighting design to assist us in these time and place journeys. It’s no mean feat to continually alter the focus and emotions of a few characters without a break, and yet the skill and concentration of ensemble members Ben Prendergast, Kate Cole, Paul Ashcroft with guest actor Jing-Xuan Chan made it seem effortlessly beautiful and utterly absorbing. Cole’s power and internal conflict especially as Martha and Evelyn was well executed with feeling and impact. Prendergast’s different idiosyncrasies and well considered energies to play both Dr Victor and Dr Jon within the Henry tale and also as Thomas the pathologist made him utterly compelling to watch. Together, these two as Elouise (Cole) and Thomas (Prendergast) really nailed the anguish of living with an obsessive person – their argument was raw and searing. Indeed the striking synergy between the different pairings was impressive across the board with many highlights; we felt playful joy at the engagement of Henry (Ashcroft) and his wife Margaret (Chan) to heartbreaking tenderness as their meetings in hospital repetitively played out. The coy attraction between Martha (Cole) and her date Patricia (Chan) embarking on a new intimate friendship shifted to the strange interaction with Patricia’s friend Greg (Ashcroft) who completely embodied a misogynist weirdo. Perhaps the only slight drop in authenticity was when waitress Lisa Scott (Chan) introduces Thomas to her stoned friends Brenda (Cole) and Freddy (Ashcroft). The physical interpretations somehow didn’t hang together with the dialogue and lost its convincing edge which had been so apparent elsewhere. But this was just a small blip on an otherwise faultless performance by all four who worked so amazingly well together – allowing each other to shine in what is a true and equal ensemble tour de force piece.
The circular nature of Payne’s trilogy of stories becomes apparent when after nearly 90 minutes they all tie together in the final scene, delivering a powerful gut-wrenching wow moment. It is so touching, so evocative; it simply takes your breath away. It leaves you contemplating the nature of love, the power of the mind, the brutal loss of memory – and yet most of all, makes you think that this show deserves a second viewing it is just so wonderfully realised and crafted from start to finish. It’s one of the real highlights of the Red Stitch 2017 calendar so far.