INCOGNITO - MELBOURNE
INCOGNITO, Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Chapel St, St Kilda; 18 July-13 August 2017. Photography by Teresa Noble: above - Jing-Xuan Chan, Ben Prendergast, Kate Cole and Paul Ashcroft; below - Kate Cole
Incognito is a play from 2014 by English playwright Nick Payne. It’s about minds, brains and obsessive behaviour as the actors weave their way through a series of stories and characters. It is as intricate as the fine wire webbing of the set, where light bulbs are strategically placed (brain synapses) and a lone piano stands, its lid precariously hanging amid the wires.
There are three narratives: two factual, one fictional, involving twenty characters and multiple parts of the world. The collectively brilliant cast of just four seamlessly switch from accent to accent and they all do it remarkably well – vital as there are no costume changes, so it is all about the voice. The slightest shift in posture and physical performance gives us instant ageing, with a slump of shoulders, a slowing of speech.
The driven Thomas Stolz Harvey (Ben Prendergast) is a central figure. He was part of the team that performed the autopsy on Albert Einstein. He stole Einstein’s brain and then spent the next fifty years trying to understand it, losing most everything else along the way.
The other “real” character is based on Henry Molaison – “Patient HM” (Paul Ashcroft) who had parts of his brain removed with the aim of “curing” epileptic seizures, but ended up chronically without memory and subjected to a lifetime of neuroscientific experimentation. Patient HM lived into his 80s and his life is depicted in front of us, humiliating and sad.
Fictionally, but dramatically, we have neuropsychologist Martha (Kate Cole) who is no longer married, has an adult son, and attempts to hook up with Patricia, a lawyer (Jing-Xuan Chan). Martha’s work is all consuming, she drinks to cope and too many truths are hidden, which alienates Patricia.
Incognito explores the mind, the brain and how we communicate, or not, through all those intricacies. The writing is to be savoured and the play is brilliantly co-directed by Ella Caldwell and Brett Cousins. Composer and sound designer (The Sweats) makes an extraordinary contribution – the use of the piano is both disheartening and heartfelt – and keeps the action dynamic, as does the lighting design by Tom Willis. Indeed, creatively this production is a huge success – including the complex and fascinating design (Chloe Greaves). The cast is strong and dynamic with Cole and Prendergast the stand outs.
My brain was addled by the end of the show, which is sublime, and wow, what a great night in the theatre!