Who wasn’t left gobsmacked by Nick Payne’s Constellations? Writing a play that deals with the mutability of human relationships, the transience of life, and esoteric science seems a Herculean feat; to have it then be the kind of thing that made even the most jaundiced theater goers (me and OughtToBeClowns) cry, well, it doesn’t even seem possible. But it happened, and it’s kept me going to everything he’s done since, both the poignant and the, well, merely entertaining. Where would Incognito fall? I wasn’t sure, but I went ahead and bought tickets long before it opened, as I didn’t want to miss out. And hey! It meant I finally got to see the Bush Theater, which I’d been hearing about for ages but not attending as they’re really a hike from Tooting.
Incognito is one of those stories that is made up of several stories sliced together, with a few actors (four) playing about twelve or so roles. I was unsure about the timelines – some things appeared to be in the present, some had to be in the past – the 70s? Older? – and as the cast didn’t change clothes, I couldn’t really work it out. The accents were spot on, though, especially for the American characters, so I had little difficulty keeping track of who was who once they started talking – but when was when, now that is only becoming clear now that I’m sitting here with the script-program in my hands.
The actual individual threads aren’t particularly compelling – you see a scientist accused of infidelity and yet it seems trivial, and you should really care – but the bubbling connection between them, of what it is that constitutes human identity, is presented clear and gleaming like the head of John the Baptist, and taking that in and experiencing what it means, not to the characters but to yourself as a person, is what I think this play intends us to do. I, for one, embraced the task wholeheartedly, in part because it’s something I’ve been looking at my whole life. What makes us who we are? How do we define ourselves? Is it our brains? Is it our work? Is it all, in fact, an illusion? One character, a research psychologist, asserts that our brains take the chaos of the many moments that are our existence and choose to make an order out of them; that they practically have to in order for us to keep our sanity. (The common metaphor, as show in this New York Times article on free will, is a monkey riding a tiger – it thinks it’s driving but the tiger is making the actual decisions about where they go.) What happens, then, when the order breaks down, when we can’t make them relate? Do we recover? Do we lose it?
These questions are brought most vividly to life in the scenes featuring Henry the amnesiac. He meets (seemingly) the same people over and over again, forgetting their conversations about five minutes after they start. Wuth the cast not aging, we can’t tell if time is passing, and Henry doesn’t seem to, either: but he does notice when his wife disappears; later, we are told he has spent some fifty years constantly asking after her because he cannot remember she has died. You think this could maybe seem like a blessing, but for me the thought hit like a knitting needle in the heart; his grief hit anew every day. And on the days when no one would tell him what happened, he missed her all day long.
In the end, some of the strands wind together, but the sense of heartbreak and my feeling that we”re all just sad monkeys desperately fighting against the randomness of the universe with all the power of out little monkey brains would not go away. An excellent play, and one which well rewarded my trip to the wild, wild West (of London).