Alzheimer’s (or dementia – the words themselves are never actually uttered within the play) is a difficult, often unwieldy subject, and it is largely thanks to two striking lead performances that Elegy maintains its delicacy – its sense of fluttering, fragile lightness – that lifts it above these difficulties, instilling it with a magnificent sense of grace. Nick Payne’s new play fits a dizzying number of questions about personhood, about ‘playing God’ and the consequences of scientific advancement, into a mere seventy minutes. It would be tempting to say that this is a scientific play – it is certainly not short on the jargon, and the earnest Miriam (Nina Sosanya), committed to her cause, fires off neurological terms at a startling rate. However, the lead characters, Carrie and Lorna (Barbara Flynn and Zoë Wanamaker) are equally unprepared for this world, thrust into it by necessity, and it is their persistent humanity that drives Elegy.
The characters wander amongst an ash-scattered floor, the space dominated by a split, glowing tree trunk, the chasm in the characters’ minds. Tom Scutt’s beautiful space comes to echo the inside of Lorna’s brain – poetry hidden in the ash, lights dimming as she struggles to reach for memories, sound screeching higher as she panics. It is a neat touch, adding a sense of the surreal amongst Josie Rourke’s admirably simple direction, inviting us directly into what is, after all, the focus of the play.
Both Lorna and Carrie are casual in their directness: Elegy is full of a dark humour that feels entirely right, and is often genuinely laugh-out-loud funny without losing sight of the tragic heart of the play. Despite the science, the big moral questions, we tumble backwards into a love story, experiencing an ever-deepening sense of tragedy as we retrace past decisions and conversations. The squabbling between Lorna and Carrie is beautifully endearing, fractured by the (literally) dark moments of forgetfulness, of disassociation. Their relationship – married 20 years before the start of Elegy – is utterly convincing, the stubborn, scared human heart of the play.
Zoë Wanamaker is stunning: degenerating and struggling before our eyes without ever descending into cliché or sentimentality, her fidgeting body language and dogged grip on life utterly heart-breaking. Carrie’s inward struggle, her distress and determination, are all beautifully played by Flynn, who maintains our belief in love, in something other than cells and calculations. The actors wrestle with stuttered, splintered sentences, breaking up in the face of the impossibility of the topic, in grasping for empathy, for understanding. There’s the occasional tinge of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but that is not necessarily a negative, and comparisons are soon forgotten by Elegy’s uncanny final scene. Elegy is not perfect, and could well have felt cumbersome in less subtle hands than those of Rourke and her lead actors. But here, the compassion of the writing is what comes across strongest, and whatever moral dilemmas it leaves the audience facing, it also leaves them with three characters whom they have come to love.