Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Incognito

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Incognito

Article excerpt

Credit: Lloyd Evans


Bush, until 21 June

This May Hurt a Bit

St James, until 21 June

How do you write a play? Here's one theory. Put a guy up a tree, throw rocks at him, get him down again. It's a good working template. Nick Payne's latest script, Incognito , uses a different scheme. You put 21 guys up a tree, set them jabbering for 90 minutes and then go home. This cumbersome structure is greatly damaged by the decision to hire just four actors to play all 21 characters. And the locations, covering six decades, leap so often between Britain and America as to induce dizziness and possibly vomiting. There are no changes of costume, or set, to indicate where you are. You just have to guess.

One storyline involves a camp young Brit with chronic amnesia. Another traces a Scottish physicist who is turning, rather grandly, into a lesbian. Elsewhere, a rogue pathologist nicks Einstein's brain in the hope of discovering the source of his genius. Later, an Einstein relative tries to repossess the brain so that DNA tests can be used to determine someone's paternity. Would the whole noodle be needed for such an operation? Nope. Do any of the world-class boffins on stage spot this oversight? Afraid not. The central concept, a tussle over a famous noggin, is enough for a play but Payne seems to lack confidence in this apparatus so he buttresses it with spare rooms and redundant wings.

Happily the resulting mess will be saluted for its 'intelligence' because, as with his previous effort, Constellations , the script is loaded with fat slabs of chat about cosmic theory. (It's worth noting, by the way, that he hasn't yet found a means of dramatising these ideas; he just ladles great dollops of scientific observation into his characters' mouths.) And at the risk of coming across as a bit of a dimwit I'm not convinced by this talk of 'intelligence'. A London yuppie showing an interest in relativity is no different from a medieval bumpkin showing an interest in Noah. And to be curious about the earth's origins doesn't indicate intelligence but consciousness.

Anyway, it's clear that Payne has pulled off the trick that Eliot ascribed to Shaw. He persuades his audiences that they, and he, share exceptional levels of sophistication and awareness. The time may come when he discovers how to create a satisfying drama too. He's barely 30 years old. He's got ages to learn the basics. …

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