At just over an hour, Elegy churns through an ocean of subject matter in a very short space of time. Its three characters tackle issues including marriage, death, the science of selfhood, shattered minds and lobotomised memories. It does all of this backwards too, with its handful of skilfully arranged scenes unfolding in reverse chronological order.
Elegy is set at some point in the near future, at a time when scientists have pioneered a new kind of treatment in which a chunk of the brain is excavated, slung in the bin and replaced with a synthetic prosthesis. Memories are lost, but function is retained and disease is cured. “It’s the difference between forgetting where you put your house keys and having your house burn down,” explains Miriam (Nina Sosanya), the play’s cryptic brain doctor.
Scene one presents Lorna (Zoe Wanamaker) at the end of her story. A recovering outpatient from this life-saving operation, she appears coldly indifferent to Carrie (Barbara Flynn), her wife of 20 years and now an unwelcome and overly familiar stranger. As the play slips further into the couple’s past, their relationship becomes clearer. Carrie is watching Lorna lose her mind day by day, and must either embrace the death of the woman she married, or obliterate their bond in the hope that their love is made up of more than just memories.
Part Memento, part Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (and a tiny bit Total Recall), Elegy is a heart-rattling love story that stares down the unspoken fear of the death of a partner, and the grim notion of who will leave the other behind. “If people started thinking about death a lot sooner,” says Lorna, “they’d fuck up a lot less”.
Zoe Wanamaker is especially superb, expressing the sadness, mania and confusion of a woman losing her mind, while still presenting a funny and loveable character beneath the condition. Though the reverso-format robs Elegy of an impactful ending, it remains a deeply affecting play with ideas of death and science that will stick to you like thought-burrs to an existential dog.
Donmar Warehouse | ★★★☆☆