This is the third play by up-and-coming young dramatist Nick Payne that I've seen, but I will think carefully before buying tickets for the fourth. I enjoyed Constellations, which featured the sublime Sally Hawkins in a two-hander with Rafe Spall, but I was much less impressed with The Same Deep Water As Me, which seemed to me to be in serious need of rewriting.
Incognito, now playing at the Bush, is a return to the format and style of Constellations, being a collage of mostly very short scenes involving four actors playing a multiplicity of parts, chopping and changing from one two-handed or three-handed dialogue to the next with barely a break. Though the dialogue crackles, the characters are numerous enough to be confusing, at least for me. About halfway through the 90 minutes, I ceased to care which of them was which.
The underlying theme is neuroscience and the mystery of the human brain. Some of the scenes involve a pathologist who has dedicated his life to studying Albert Einstein's brain, slice by slice. Others involve a man named Henry who has lost all except a few scraps of his memory, and is reduced to repeating a few phrases over and over again with pathetic dignity. The play asks us whether the brain is more than just a storytelling machine, and whether our identity is more than just the sum of our memories. This kind of scientific fairydust has been sprinkled by many a playwright, including Payne himself in Constellations. But it doesn't work dramatically in this play because the characters are too fragmentary. I remember thinking the same about a Peter Brook production at the National some years ago of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, based on the writings of Oliver Sacks and also composed of short scenes.
There's an argument to be had over whether theatre can work without developed characters. Obviously there are countless examples of plays which show that it can, from the short dialogues of Pinter and Caryl Churchill to the realms of physical and verbatim theatre. But in the case of Incognito I feel that the rapid-fire dialogue cannot mask the fact that, as one character says about the human brain, 'There is no you, there is no self, there is nothing in there'.