HIGHTIDE WINS A DAZZLING PAYNE PREMIERE
O happy conversion! It is awkward and gloomy for a critic to admire and acknowledge a play’s clever originality, yet privately feel nothing. Nick Payne’s much-praised Constellations had had this effect on me: neither the cosmology and beekeeping nor the love story hit home. I liked his Blurred Lines very much though, and admired the more conventional The Same Deep Water As Me at the Donmar, so I settled to this premiere with hope. Even though the set – shining vague scaffolding – was ominously reminiscent of the white balloon ceiling of Constellations.
The hope is fulfilled. This is shiningly brilliant, a meditation on neuroscience, memory, deception, heredity and identity: alive with compassion and wonder, streaked with intelligent humour. It interweaves three stories. There is the 1955 obsession of the pathologist Thomas Stolz Harvey who annexes and dissects the brain of the dead Albert Einstein to try and find his genius. There is the story, powerfully affecting, of an early victim of brain surgery, Henry, left with only the shortest-term memory, speaking and understanding in terrible unresolvable circles. And there is a troubled modern-day neuropsychologist, divorced and borderline alcoholic, who falls in love with another woman.
Four actors – Alison O’Donnell, Paul Hickey, Amelia Lowdell and Sargon Yelda – play 21 parts over six decades without prop or costume changes, moving between them in seconds with astonishing fludity (superb direction from Joe Murphy.) Payne uses his gift for sharp natural dialogue to drive plot and character forward within the same fragmented, episodic flea-jump style which Constellations exploited, challenging all traditions of chronology and form.
If that sounds tough going, astonishingly it is not. You have to concentrate, for the story’s circles are concentric and overlapping, Venn diagrams of ideas and ironies. Again and again Payne circles and returns, breaking and re-forming shapes like the flocks of starlings his Henry character speaks of, sparking ideas and patterns and inspirations like fleeting flashes of electricity across brain-cells. Harvey’s desperation to find the secrets of thought in the dead mush of tissue becomes ever more hopeless; Martha’s daily encounters with amnesiacs – even her envy of them – is counterpointed by her own unwillingness to admit her past memories and encumbrances to her new lover. When the scientist, on the run, enthuses about the brain it is ironically to an audience of self-stupefied young Kansas stoners. Once, a sudden seemingly unconnected violent moment links back to the theme.
. All the cast are remarkable, and not only in the speed of change between characters in which two people in conversation barely change posture to leap across decades and personalities. Sargon Yelda’s rendering of Henry’s terrible amnesiac fugue is heartbreaking, its conclusion unexplained but intensely moving. Martha’s cry “We are a blip within a blip in an abyss” is denied by her final moment. It’s a marvellous experience: I felt my own brain expanding and unmooring, chasing hares and moonbeams and mysteries. As Einstein said, knowledge is limited but imagination encircles the world.
touring to Newcastle, Oxford North Wall, and Bush London in coming weeks