Here’s a question. If the person you have loved and lived with for twenty years has developed dementia and there is an operation that can cure the disease but will mean that those married years will be erased from the patient’s memory, is the procedure worth doing?
This is the major problem facing the two older women in Nick Payne’s new play, Elegy, set in the near future and currently running at The Donmar Warehouse. After much soul searching, teachers, Carrie (Barbara Flynn) and Lorna (Zoe Wannamaker) decide that Lorna should go ahead with the operation and the play opens just after she has been discharged from hospital. The problem is that the reality of Lorna now not having any recollection of her life with Carrie is more than her partner can bear.
We learn about the operation and the decision behind it thanks to Nick Payne’s clever use of reverse chronology. Luckily we’re not bombarded with too much scientific jargon, just enough information about the removal of the diseased parts of Lorna’s brain and their replacement with microchip implants from the doctor (Nina Sosanya). Instead the play leans more towards the ethical dilemma that faces the two women and draws us into their love affair, ensuring that we care deeply about their fate.
Of course this wouldn’t be possible without excellent performances from the three actors. When we first meet Zoe Wannamaker’s Lorna she adeptly convinces that she really has no idea who this Carrie person is. She is cold and distant, “I don’t see anything when I look at you”, and it’s only when we travel back in time that we realise her love for Carrie totally mirrored that of her partner. Her frustration and anger that she has been dealt this dud hand is painful to watch and the irony isn’t lost on us that she was the one initially less inclined to go through with the procedure.
Barbara Flynn’s devastation at losing the love of the love of her life is understated and all the more effecting for that. The utter fruitlessness of trying to get through to the woman she has lost is never overblown, just as the love she has for this woman is never underestimated. Nina Sosanya’s matter of fact Miriam brings a less emotional character into the mix, although we are under no doubt that this doctor’s compassionate nature isn’t far below the surface.
Tom Scutt’s design places a symbolic dead tree with splayed branches centre stage and Josie Rourke sparse direction ensures Elegy never succumbs to melodrama.
This is a very short play, at just over one hour’s duration, but it certainly packs a punch!