Memory, identity and theatre

In the past 7 days I’ve had 2 great experiences at Newcastle’s Live Theatre.

The first, on Saturday, was Nick Payne’s Incognito and it was brilliant. The script interweaves 3 stories, spanning 50-odd years and thousands of miles. 21 characters1 are played by just 4 actors and I’m sure there were nearly 21 different accents to help us distinguish who was who.

Two of the stories are based on real events: the theft (?) and study of Einstein’s brain after his death in 1955, and the pioneering surgery performed to relieve a man of his epileptic seizures that left him unable to form new memories. The third story focuses on a clinical neuropsychologist, her work helping patients with memory loss and her struggle to find her own identity.

This play demands your full attention (or at least it did mine). At the beginning there are quick, clean cuts between each scene as we jump from story to story. As each story developed I was trying to make connections to, and comparisons with, the other strands. I was aware that if my concentration lapsed at any point (although I was so gripped, I don’t think there was any danger of this) then I’d lose my grasp on what was going on.

As we get closer to the end and the 3 stories begin to merge together, so do the transitions between the scenes. I think this is where the use of multiple accents really came into its own as it was easy to identify when a character from another story entered before the previous scene ended.

After nearly a week I’m still getting goosebumps thinking about this play and it’s gone straight into my top 3 theatre experiences of all time2.


Last night I went back to Live to see a rehearsed reading of Richard Stockwell’s new play, Continuum. We enter the story during the aftermath of a road accident in which the central character, Ben, has suffered frontal lobe damage. Ben is struggling to piece together his memories of the accident as we, the audience, are trying to piece together why it happened and what the consequences are. This all plays out through a series of conversations held between Ben, his girlfriend (Jenny) and his doctor (Sarah). We cut quickly between the conversations and these fast changes really help amp up the intensity of the play.

The reading was followed by a short discussion and we were asked to give feedback on whether we understood what was happening and if the story felt complete. For me, the answer to both questions was yes. It’s not an overly complex story, but I could see how the fast changes might present a problem for the audience’s ability to follow. I actually found the sometimes frenetic changes between scenes helped with my appreciation of what Ben was himself experiencing.

I really enjoyed this opportunity to see a play in development and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for similar events in the future.

1 I counted these from memory, so it’s entirely possible there were more… or fewer.
2 The other experiences in my top 3 are Pip Utton’s Adolf and The 3 Little Pigs, created for the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

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I am a freelance writer, editor and trainer. A librarian in a former life.

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