'Elegy' review or 'Have you tried tugging from the roots?'

Elegy, Nick Payne
Donmar Warehouse, 5th May 2016

There’s a great big tree in the middle of Tom Scutt’s design for Nick Payne’s new play, ‘Elegy’. It has been ripped from the ground, its branches lopped off - and is now locked inside a glass cage. This tree is very, very significant. I know that because at pivotal moments in Josie Rourke’s production the middle of the tree glows, magic and golden. When things get really bad mist blasts through the cage and the tree nearly disappears from sight. I have, you see, spent an awful lot of time looking at this tree. Hell, I even did a little sketch:

All this time spent looking at a tree – no matter how beautiful it might be (kudos to Scutt) - cannot be a good thing.  ‘Elegy’ is not, you see, about trees. It is, in fact, about a middle-aged woman called Lorna who must decide, along with her partner Carrie, whether or not to have life-saving surgery and lop out the bit of her brain that is rotting away from dementia. Said surgery will save Lorna’s life, but will also erase 20 years of memories. Lorna will lose all the bits of her life and soul that she shared with Carrie. She’s a bit like that tree – you see – cut off before her prime, preserved in glass but, somehow, with a certain sense of magic and life still about her.

So, yes, the tree is very significant. It is also a little distracting; it teases us with the promise of a great play – the kind of oaky, impressive, take it home and have good-ol-think-about-it-play - that never quite emerges in this nifty 70 minute production.

Instead, Elegy is essentially a riff on themes we have seen Payne explore before, only with far more rigour and heart. It is as if ‘Constellations’ (which fucks around with the laws of physics in order to ask questions about love and destiny) and ‘Incognito’ (which plays around with time and memory in order to ask questions about identity) have been smashed together, and slightly battered in the process. If I’m being brutally honest, it feels like Payne had a chunk of research left over from past plays – and decided to squeeze one last play out of it. All this criticism comes from a place of deep respect and optimism: Nick Payne is better than this.

‘Elegy’ isn’t terrible by any means – it’s just not nearly as good as it might have been. There are still some powerful, thoughtful and frightening moments in here – and it is a joy, of course, to see two older women given centre stage. Zoë Wanamaker is, as always, mesmerising. It is as if she has an internal dial that says ‘humanity’, which she is able to twizzle – at will - with ridiculously nuanced results. At times, Wanamaker gives off a sort of human heat – as if all the love she has experienced is radiating out of her. In other (much sadder) scenes, it is as if all that warmth – along with something that is essentially Lorna – has been sucked right out of Wanamaker. The play begins at the end – when Wanamaker’s Lorna has already had her life-saving surgery. She has, in her own words, got her life back. But Lorna’s eyes are horribly flat, her body looks limp and the air around her feels cold and still. In a later (earlier) scene, Lorna tells her lover Carrie: ‘There is no life without you.’ The way that Wanamaker is able to embody this truth is just extraordinary.

Barbara Flynn, too, invests ‘Elegy’ with a warmth and resonance that perhaps it does not fully deserve. When Flynn’s Carrie and Wanamaker’s Lorna are together – especially in the scenes that take place before Lorna’s op - the theatre glows like the middle of that tree. When Carrie laughs manically at the doctor’s long-winded scientific explanations concerning Lorna’s condition - and cuts off the doctor’s ceaseless jargon with a single, piercing look of heartbreak – the sheer bloody pointlessness of science and reason, in the face of love and loss, shines through.

But there are lots of dips in this production; for a play that is relatively short, ‘Elegy’ feels a little flabby. The dialogue endlessly flickers and repeats, and not always with good reason. Sometimes it feels like the characters are repeating themselves merely to pass the time. The structure – normally Payne’s calling card – isn’t up to scratch either. In the opening scenes, Payne spends way too much energy holding onto a secret - what is Lorna’s mysterious ailment? - that doesn’t really need to be kept. The play only really ‘lands’ about a third of the way in, when we are hit with a wave of crashing, black out scenes between Carrie and Lorna. Their love sparks and sputters - flares and subsides – as angry blackouts (and passing time) tear at the edges of their relationship.  

The skewed chronology of ‘Elegy’ (we mainly move backwards in time) also feels a little tired. We’ve seen this kind of time-warping in Payne’s earlier works, only engineered with much more purpose and specificity. The final scene turns out to be a repeat of the first scene between Lorna and Carrie – when the two meet again after Lorna’s life-saving/memory-eradicating surgery. ‘I’ve got my life back’, bleats out Lorna to the love-of-her-life she no longer recognises. No doubt the emptiness of that phrase is meant to hit us slap bang in the tear duct. But it doesn’t. At least not for me. It actually feels a bit tricksy – hollowed out and weirdly distant, a bit like that damn tree.


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