Posted on behalf of Kerri Smith
The best science fiction can predict the science of tomorrow and colour the preoccupations of today. It’s too early to tell whether Nick Payne’s new play, Elegy, will do the former, but it certainly takes a powerful swing at the latter.
Payne’s short three-hander, currently at the Donmar Warehouse in London, evokes the challenge of coping with a relative with worsening dementia, a dilemma well-known to many families. The sci-fi twist comes in the form of a new therapy that carries a heavy cost.
We meet a couple in their sixties. Lorna (Zoë Wanamaker) has an unnamed disease, which has taken its toll on her mood and memory. She and partner Carrie (Barbara Flynn) have to decide whether to embark on a radical new treatment, or let her condition continue its march.
In Payne’s world, doctors can map the brain’s tangle of neurons and have learned how to replace some ailing circuits with prosthetic versions. Normal functions such as walking can be preserved or restored. But, the couple is told, the treatment will not be able to reinstate memories from a large chunk of the patient’s adult life: the period during which the couple met and married. Lorna will have to sacrifice a life’s worth of memories with Carrie for a healthy post-op life.
Some of the science fiction has a basis in today’s fact. Neuroscientists are working on the brain’s ‘connectome’ — a map of all the brain’s neural projections. But they are nowhere close to having a complete atlas, let alone a definitive guide of what functions and memories lie where. It’s also unlikely that Lorna’s surgery would selectively remove memories depending on their age, although one 2009 study suggested that different brain regions help recall memories of different ages.
Patients today have dire choices similar to this. People with Parkinson’s, for instance, might have to choose between a drug with severe side effects, a major operation or a worsening of the movement disorder. But in Elegy, Payne presents a different type of Hobson’s-choice: would you change your ‘self’ to save your life? As Lorna asks, “What life, if it isn’t this life?”
One speech mars the flow. The doctor, Miriam (Nina Sosanya), gives the couple a primer on axons and glutamate that seems lifted from a neuroscience textbook. There are, rightfully, no more such explications. But there are inconsistencies in how we are told the treatment works and what neuroscientists know about how the brain makes memories and stores motor programmes. A more profound integration of neuroscience into the plot might have helped that.
For instance, the therapy Miriam offers — which excises memories that cannot be replaced — is problematic. Memories do not exist in one neural area; they are stored more widely. Likewise, many motor procedures are essentially glorified memories: riding a bike is a classic example. It’s not clear that these would live somewhere entirely and conveniently different from Lorna’s recollections of events in her life.
But the premise needn’t make neuroscientific sense for the plot to touch us. And it does, in part because the characters are so well-portrayed. Wanamaker shows us Lorna’s deterioration viscerally — walking across the stage and wheeling around angrily when she forgets what she wanted there — as well as her struggle to adjust to healthy life after the procedure. Sosanya brings a humanity to Miriam, despite the scientific soliloquies. She also gets to crack a science joke, raising a laugh from the audience when she tells the couple that the treatment works in mice, rats…and zebrafish.
The play’s structure and dialogue also reflect the fragmentation of Lorna’s memory and the couple’s life together. We start at the end of the story, when Lorna has already undergone treatment, and look back at the beginning of their relationship, their appointments with the doctor and struggle to cope with Lorna’s dementia. The splicing and disjointedness force you to work to figure out where each scene fits and what has come before, evoking the confusion of the condition.
The dialogue is wonderfully natural, yet also crafted to add to the sense of fragmentation. Barely any character finishes a sentence and many important words are missed out, just as people talking about difficult subjects will tail off and let the listener fill in the blanks. “I worry we’re in danger of reducing an extremely complex…” says Miriam, leaving the thought hanging under a barrage of questions from the couple.
In the middle of the stage, a tall tree trunk with a deep split along its length stands in a glass box. When Lorna’s memory clouds, the box fills with smoke. Like the sparse stage and the half-sentences, it is beautiful, disturbing — and memorable.
Kerri Smith is Nature’s podcast editor. She tweets at @minikerri.
Elegy runs at the Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, London, through 18 June.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.