Incognito, Bush Theatre – An ingenious new play by Nick Payne


Nick Payne’s new play, Incognito, is almost a riff on the tragedy of amnesia and what it is that defines us and gives us our identity. Payne, who won the Evening Standard Award for Best Play with Constellations (Royal Court/West End), is again using science to examine the human experience.  He weaves three narratives, loosely based on facts and some invented, to explore how memory defines us.  As the scenes jump between time and place with precise accuracy, we struggle to make sense of the information and Payne makes us work hard to understand how the strands fit together.  I’m not even sure if I got it all by the end but did enjoy the journey nonetheless.

Incognito - Paul Hickey and Amelia Lowdell

Incognito – Paul Hickey and Amelia Lowdell

In 1955, we meet Thomas Stoltz Harvey in New Jersey.  Thomas, is the proverbial  “right time and right place” kind of guy who gets chosen to perform the autopsy on Albert Einstein but then steals his brain and proceeds to spend the next 40 years searching for the genius in the formaldehyde tissue.  Meanwhile, across the pond in England, Henry M undergoes pioneering brain surgery to relieve him of epileptic seizures only to find that he has lost all short-term memory.  The third strand of the play centers on Martha, a clinical neuropsychologist living in London who divorced her husband but yearns for the freedom afforded to those who have lost their memory as she attempts to rewrite her past.

This third segment ties all the parts together as Martha explains her clinical observations of her patients and how anxious they become at suffering from amnesia.  For the patients, Martha observes, “If you can’t remember who you are then in a way you aren’t really anyone.”  But fundamentally, she wishes they could see the freedom to reinvent themselves, to be freed from the past.  For Martha there is no fixed self.  It’s all a misconception as “the brain builds a narrative to steady us from moment to moment, but ultimately it’s an illusion”.

The play is short at 90-minutes and directed with precision by Joe Murphy who alternates the scenes very quickly, somewhat akin to modern screen viewing.  This has the advantage of keeping us engaged but sometimes at the cost of emotional depth.  Paul Hickey, Amelia Lowdell, Alison O’Donnell and Sargon Yelda do a superb job of playing an impressive number of characters, each with different accents, physical gestures and switching between opposite emotional states instantaneously.  As you sit there, you have to make extensive use of your own short-term memory to make sense of the scenes unfolding in front of you, the only clues being an accent, a name or even the repetition of a past scene.

I really enjoyed the themes of the play and how it made me think about identity and how accumulated memories define us, but while extremely enjoyable, I felt that a certain arc to the story was missing.  Still, I urge you to see what will certainly be one of the more interesting piece of theatre this year.