30 May 2014

Complex and satisfying Incognito at the Bush Theatre

Bush Theatre has quickly become one of my favourites, helped by the interesting programme, nice cafe/bar area and ease of travel to/from the venue. It's something like the Arcola Theatre in that respect but closer.

All that means that I do not need much excuse to go there which, in turn, means that I do not have to find out much about the shows before I book them. And the upshot of all that is I had little idea of what Incognito was about when I arrived to see it, which is just how I like it. The surprise is part of the fun.

The timings worked well this evening and I arrived at the theatre about ten minutes before the doors opened so I was able to join the queue and order a beer at the same time. The informal queueing system was as messy as always, there just is not a logical place for it, but there were no major incidents (I did hear some grumbling, possibly about me) and we entered the theatre in an orderly manner.

The layout of the stage was different yet again, I have no idea yet what the default configuration of the Bush is. This time the stage was in the middle with racked seating on both sides. That meant that there were two front rows and I was able to claim a middle seat on one of them despite not being anything like the first person in and some of the keen people reserving seats for friends with coats, a common practise at the Orange Tree but not something that I had seen at the Bush before.

The opposite benches may have looked half empty when I took the photo below but that was only because I took it almost as soon as I got in. The show was sold out.

I think that it makes sense to talk about the structure of the play before addressing the drama. I'll try that any way.

A cast of two men and two women played a number of roles across two linked stories. They did not change costumes and they just used the basic acting tools of voice and movement to show who they were.

At first they left the stage area to sit at the edge for a while before returning in a new role but as we got familiar with the characters and the technique these gaps became smaller and then disappeared with them changing role on stage. I had seen this done before, e.g. Middlemarch at the Orange Tree, but not to this extent.

The drama was constructed as three related stories (I think!) that were told in parallel. At least one was not chronological so we had to work out which story we were in, who the characters were and whereabouts in the story each scene was happening, in a set of scenes that changed quickly. That sounds complicated, and it was, but we were led in to it gradually and I was never lost.

Now to the stories. The first concerned the fate of Albert Einstein's brain, the second that of Henry Molaison who developed a sever memory problem following brain surgery. The surgery had been given to try and cure his fits but that was not very obvious in this production.

I only knew because I had seen the story before in 2401 Objects at Jacksons Lane in 2011. This production also used the same cast to tell two parallel tales, then it was Henry's past and his present. Those coincidences troubled me slightly and took the edge off an otherwise excellent production.

The third story concerned a neuro-scientist who having been married and had a son had then started a relationship with another woman. The tension in this story was the secrets she kept from her new lover about her previous straight life.

The stories were there just as an excuse to string a series of related scenes together, something like a fast action sketch show, and the drama came from the flow of the scenes and the way that the actors and the set stayed static in the middle of these changes but adapted, chameleon-like, to each scene.

Incognito was brilliantly constructed and, in that respect, was probably the most complex production that I have seen. This is what excellent theatre-craft can do. It was also very human and warmly emotional with the stories concentrating on the people in them and how they felt about the events happening to them. A few eyes were probably moistened.

The best analogy that I can think of to try and make sense of it all is that it was like eating a box of nice assorted chocolates quickly.

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