Thursday, 20 July 2017

Incognito, July 19, 2017, (PREVIEW) ***1/2

Written by Nick Payne, Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre
At Red Stitch Theatre, until Aug 13, 2017
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 19, 2017
Stars: ***/2 
NB: I reviewed a PREVIEW of this production on Wed July 19, 2017, with the permission of Red Stitch Actors' Theatre.
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Thurs July 20, 2017, and in print on Fri July 21, 2017. KH
 Jing-Xuan Chan, Ben Prendergast, Kate Cole & Paul Ashcroft_ Photo Teresa Noble

The human brain is uncharted and incomprehensible territory and Incognito, by UK playwright Nick Payne, challenges our understanding of the brain, the mind, memory and our notions of the self.

Payne’s play, which is co-directed sensitively and imaginatively by Ella Caldwell and Brett Cousins in this production, interweaves three stories, two of which are factual.

In 1955, after performing Albert Einstein’s autopsy, Princeton pathologist, Thomas Harvey (Ben Prendergast), steals Einstein’s brain to study it; in the UK in 1953, Henry (Paul Ashcroft) loses his capacity to create new memories after an operation to cure his epilepsy; and in the present, Martha (Kate Cole), a recently divorced neuropsychologist, struggles to treat her patients and to manage her personal and emotional life.

Each of the four, talented actors plays multiple roles, transitioning frequently and almost seamlessly between stories with a shift of character, accent, physicality or attitude.

Ashcroft has the most poignant and heart-breaking scenes, portraying the gentle Henry who politely and repeatedly introduces himself, is surprised and delighted by Margaret (Jing-Xuan Chan), his wife’s arrival, or confused by her absence.

Cole gives a compelling performance as both Martha, who wrestles with her newfound passion for feisty solicitor, Patricia (Chan), and as Harvey’s beleaguered wife who despairs at her husband’s obsession with Einstein’s brain.

Prendergast balances vulnerability with mania in his depiction of Harvey, and Chan brings warmth and sadness to Margaret, Henry’s loving, young wife.

Chloe Greaves’ design, with its mesh of black threads criss-crossing over the tiny stage, creates a symbolic representation of the complexity of our cerebral synapses, while Tom Willis’ dim lighting evokes the brain’s murky depths and a series of dangling lamps suggests our occasional light bulb moments.

Payne’s three narrative threads are not always fully integrated into a unified whole, but this play is thought provoking and moving. What more do you want from a play about the mind?

By Kate Herbert
Ben Prendergast, Kate Cole_ Photo Teresa Noble

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