The Bush Theatre is one of those venues in London where the actors and the audience members are so physically close that it feels like everyone holds a responsibility in the performance going smoothly. This month, Nick Payne (Constellations, Blurred Lines) presents a play about the connections between neuroscience and our own brains, and the contradictory distance between the two. As in Constellations, we yearn to understand our own identities and memories by studying the unattainable, whether this be stars or that yellowish organ that is stuck inside our head and that we don’t even have control over. In the end, when it comes to love and friendship, we learn that science does not have the answers.
The traverse stage designed by Oliver Townsend insists on this imperfection by presenting us with two open pianos whose “insides” are visible and prison-like bars which surround the stage, bearing a few gaps that, as with the brain, could be dangerous to escape through.
The four actors do fantastic work in portraying multiple multicultural characters in various moments in the past 100 years. Amelia Lowdell shines and amuses as a divorced mother who is supposed to be quitting cigarettes and is trying out a lesbian relationship. While she is a neuroscientist, she is the least at ease with her own feelings, levels of stress and lies. Sargon Yelda is also excellent as a brain surgery patient who cannot remember further than 30 seconds back. He, if I remember correctly, plays the most characters and does so brilliantly, taking on new physicalities and accents with great ease.
It is funny to observe that the art of creating a new self is what keeps actors going. Payne writes that “The brain builds a narrative to steady us from moment to moment”, which shows that with every new moment, we as humans also constantly invent something new to keep us going.
I don’t think the audience wishes to come out of this show with answers on how their brains work, and these answers are never provided. Instead, they get an insight into what happens to personal identity when that crucial organ, the brain, works against us.