Incognito: general relativity and cognitive psychology made simple

Nabokov’s second play to come to Live, Incognito, is an extremely ambitious play covering lots of issues – but maybe a little too ambitious for its own good.

Flock of birds in the shape of a face

A recent addition to Live’s touring theatre line-up is Nabokov theatre. Back in February, they made their Newcastle début with Blink, which is such a wonderful play you must see it. And I don’t care that the tour’s finished – you just going to have to crack the bit of general relativity that enables you to travel back in time to earlier this year so you can catch it. Speaking of general relativity, this is what their follow-up is about. Incognito, with Joe Murphy directing again, is all about abstract concepts of physics along with the equally light subject of cognitive psychology. And just in case you think this doesn’t stretch your brain, this play covers three stories with 21 characters over a period of sixty years. Oh, and four actors play all the characters. Whatever else you might think, you can’t say Nabokov is unadventurous.

Incognito is a co-production with Live Theatre, whose year, it must be said, has been quite conservative. A lot of their 2014 productions are repeats of 2013’s greatest hits – okay, any theatre would probably do the same when the ticket sales are that good, but 2013’s successes have meant a 2014 dominated by safe bets. So it’s good that Live are involved in something more adventurous, even those this is, artistically speaking, very much a Nabokov production. One early bit of good news is that, as far as I can tell, the science is broadly accurate. That’s good news not only for Live and Nabakov, but also for everyone else in the theatre, otherwise I would be been standing up screaming “NO, YOU IDIOTS! YOU CAN’T DO THAT! DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND ANY PHYSICS AT ALL?” But, pedant-pleasing aside, how does it do?

Well, the three stories that make up Incognito are almost stand-alone stories, but there’s enough interaction to justify putting them into one play. One closely follows the true story of Henry Molaison, a man who underwent pioneering brain surgery at a heartbreaking cost to his own sanity, but who became an important test case in the understanding of psychology. The second story follows another true story of Thomas Stoltz Harvey, a pathologist who got hold of Einstein’s brain when he died, but whose obsession with this led to his ostracisation his career and family. And the third story covers Martha Murphy, a (this time fictitious) clinical psychologist who turns out to be a blood relative of both men.

Without any use of costume or scenery changes, writer Nick Payne took a big and bold gamble, as this play could easily have been incomprehensible from beginning to end. But writer, director and cast between them handle this challenge very well. You have to concentrate to follow this play, but it is possible to do it, even in later scene changes where actors switch from one character to another on the spot. That is an extremely skilled piece of theatre production for all concerned, and a very promising sign of what Nabokov is capable of pulling off.

However, in spite of this skill, the breadth of subject matter this play covers comes at a price. I always find the most engaging plays are the ones where you care about the outcome. I don’t necessarily have to like the lead characters, but I do need to wonder “I wonder what happens next?” Blink had me hooked from start to finish with the two very believable characters. This time, try as I might, once I’d unscrambled who was who, when was when, and which metaphysical or psychological theory we’re discussing this scene, I just couldn’t get myself to be that interested in what becomes of these people. The play also promises themes such as “explroing the nature of identity”, but that’s such an ambigous concept it’s impossible to say whether that was achieved. Incognito must be applauded for its ambition, but I think on this occasion they may have been a little too ambitious for their own good.

Ultimately, whether or not this is the play for you depends on what you fancy. If you like your plays to be packed full of challenging and thought-provoking material for ninety minutes, you probably won’t be disappointed. If you prefer your plays to be more relaxing or conventional, you probably won’t be won over. And that’s okay, because all plays have their target audience, but who knows, perhaps there was an opportunity to appeal to a wider audience that wasn’t taken up. Still, Incognito is a promising sign of Nabokov is capable of, so another Live/Nabokov colloboration like this one would be most welcome.

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