By Myron My
The expression ‘the mind works in mysterious ways’ rings true in the stunning new work by Red Stitch Actors Studio. In its Australian premiere, Nick Payne’s Incognito – a poignant play about the brain, Albert Einstein and love – is a beautiful exploration of how our minds do work and how we use memories to create our identity and become the people we are.
The story focuses on three non-linear narratives, two of which are centred on real people. Thomas Harvey is the pathologist who conducted the autopsy on Albert Einstein and became obsessed with what could be revealed from research into his brain. The second story based on fact is of Henry Molaison, a 27 year old-man who – after an operation to cure his epilepsy – lost his short-term memory which left him unable to remember the detail of conversations he had been having seconds earlier. The third story meanwhile revolves around a fictitious neuro-psychologist, Martha, who has a somewhat nihilistic view on identity and memories.
Incognito‘s narrative structure can be a puzzle to piece together, but as the story progresses, the relationships and links between characters and scenes gradually becomes apparent. Through the astute direction of Ella Caldwell and Brett Cousins, the pace is fast enough to keep momentum building and have you engrossed in the scenes playing out, but slow enough to ensure you never get left behind. The snap changes from scene to scene are executed perfectly and supported by Tom Willis‘ insightful lighting design.
The cast of four deliver accomplished performances in their portrayal of both the central characters and the eighteen additional ones, with each actor taking on between four to six roles. Ben Prendergast as pathologist Thomas brings forth a nuanced performance and Prendergast’s ability to show Thomas at varying stages of his life are a testament to his skill as an actor. Paul Ashcroft is heart-breakingly marvelous as Henry, as he obliviously remains stuck in an eternal time warp. Guest actor with the company Jing-Xuan Chan is also brilliant as both Henry’s long-suffering wife Margaret and as Lisa, a woman who finds herself in a relationship with Martha, played by Kate Cole. Cole brings to the surface the complexities of Martha’s history and views on life with ease but it is in her evocative portrayal of Evelyn, the adopted granddaughter of Albert Einstein, where she really shines.
With the scenes that take place spanning various cities and time periods, dialect coach Jean Goodwin ensures that subtle differences are picked up on, and each actor does an incredibly skillful job in their convincing accents and being able to switch between them at the drop of a hat. With the story moving through the years, this achievement is also a great indicator of time passing by and allows us to relocate events in some order.
Chloe Greaves‘ remarkable set design perfectly captures the essence of Payne’s play. A piano rests just off centre-stage, its lid has exploded from its place and hanging in mid air, frozen in time. From inside the piano, black string spills out, reaching the ceiling and walls that results in a spider web-like cave and giving an artistic interpretation of how the brain operates.
Incognito is an intelligent exploration of the brain, memories and identity: about knowing who you are and in some cases, about not knowing who you are. It may be a play that demands we pay attention, and perhaps ironically, puts our brain into overdrive, but it is also an extremely rewarding experience to be seeing theatre of such a high standard performed locally.
Venue: Red Stitch Actors Theatre, 2 Chapel St, St. Kilda.
Season: Until 13 August | Wed- Sat 8:00pm, Sun 6:30pm
Tickets: $49 Full | $34 Senior | $28 Student | $25 Under 30s
Bookings: Red Stitch Actors Theatre
Image by Theresa Noble Photography