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Sad, in a funny kind of way

A new work by Nick Payne, a playwright who captures the voices of people who are often ignored

Isabel Lloyd | March/April 2014

“Yeah, people die. But it’s less about grief than some stuff I’ve written.” Nick Payne, the winner of the Evening Standard’s Best Play award for “Constellations” in 2012, is moving on. Sort of. “Incognito”, which premieres at the High Tide Festival in Suffolk, features three interconnecting characters: the (real-life) pathologist who stole Einstein’s brain, a patient undergoing surgery, and a clinical neuropsychologist whose marriage falls apart. Like much of Payne’s earlier work, it stands at that point in a Venn diagram where science meets memory, identity and loss.

Take “Constellations”, a thrilling, supple piece of writing. Using only “two people talking in an empty room”, it considered all the different possible universes a couple in a relationship could inhabit—including illness and death. “My dad died in 2010,” Payne says. “I didn’t tell anyone at the time, but ‘Constellations’ was basically about him dying. Just masked by the multiverse.” It was also very funny, prodding relentlessly at ordinary people’s everyday inabilities to articulate what they feel, or want.

His comedy is sympathetic, not satirical. Payne, now 30, grew up in the borderlands of Bedfordshire; his family came largely from Luton. And in last year’s “The Same Deep Water as Me” he proved adept at capturing the often-ignored voice of the British dormitory town—haphazardly educated, culturally insecure, interested in the wider world but unsure how to access it. His dialogue has a poet’s sense of rhythm yet still sounds like real people, really talking. “This seems a bit weird, but I have to hear my characters’ voices before I start to write. So I wait and wait, write and write, and then afterwards I cut and cut. But still sometimes I’m watching one of my pieces and I think ‘they all sound a bit like me’.” This is, naturally, a joke.

His other great strength, setting him squarely in the front rank of young British playwrights, is theatricality—in a good way. Payne cites Caryl Churchill as a huge influence because of her “boldness with form”; like her, he fully understands the difference between a play and a wannabe movie. Not that he rules out writing for the screen: he’s just completed a half-hour drama for BBC1, one of five by different writers. If that brings him to a wider audience, all to the good; but you have to hope he’ll return to the stage—for theatre’s sake. And Luton’s. ~ Isabel Lloyd

Incognito High Tide Festival, Halesworth, Apr 10th-19th

 

THEATRE AT A GLANCE

Cabaret (Studio 54, New York, Mar 21st to Aug 31st). Alan Cumming revives his reeking, trackmarked, career-defining turn from 1993 as the Emcee, directed, again, by Sam Mendes. Michelle Williamsan actress who never loses sight of reality—makes her Broadway debut as Sally Bowles. If ever a show was worth getting on a plane for, this is it.

Other Desert Cities (Old Vic, London, to Jun 7th). This British premiere of a Tony-winning comedy-drama about a family facing its secrets is the kind of ensemble-piece which stands or falls on the casting. So good news, then, that Sinéad Cusack, Clare Higgins and Martha Plimpton are all on board.

Birdland (Royal Court, London, Apr 3rd to May 24th). Fresh from “Blurred Lines” by Nick Payne at the Shed, Carrie Cracknell directs Simon Stephens’s new play, about a rock star who can have whatever he wants. The mega-ego is played by Andrew Scottnot just Moriarty in “Sherlock”, but a quicksilver interpreter of Stephens’s slippery, harrowing texts.

Privacy (Donmar, London, Apr 10th to May 31st). Josie Rourke directs James Graham’s new play, inspired by the Snowden affair, based on interviews with journalists and politicians. If this sounds dry, Graham has chops: his “This House” last year made a vivid, human satire from the unpromising material of British politics in the mid-1970s.

Bullets Over Broadway (St James, New York, from Mar 11th). Stage versions of great films are apt to add nothing to the original. But Broadway excels at celebrating itself, so Woody Allen’s musical rehash of his own comedy of theatrical manners, choreographed by the magnificently witty Susan Stroman, is a decent bet.

The Valley of Astonishment (Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris, Apr 29th to May 31st; then touring). Seeing a Peter Brook show can feel like taking medicine: it’s likely to be uncomfortable, but you know it will make you better. Two great clownsKathryn Hunter and Marcello Magniare the spoonfuls of sugar. ~ IL

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