The end of a loving relationship is inevitably painful – but the severance depicted by Nick Payne in his new play is agonising in the extreme. Lorna and Carrie have been married for more than two decades. But now Lorna has had pioneering treatment for a degenerative brain condition that, while halting the cruel physical progress of her illness, has robbed her of a large chunk of her memory. She doesn’t remember the woman who was – and who remains – her passionately devoted wife, much less feel anything for her. Worse, for poor Carrie at least, she doesn’t want to. Instead, Lorna wants to start her life afresh, leaving Carrie bereft, without even the comfort of knowing that Lorna loved her until the end.
It’s just over an hour long, but Payne’s play is crammed with profound meditations on truth, identity, human connection, science, morality and mortality. How do we ever truly know if we are loved? How deeply or completely do we really know anyone, even those with whom we are most intimate? And how much do our memories and experiences define who we are? The writing is both beautiful and terrifying, and, in a lucid production by Josie Rourke that is by turns luminous and tenebrous, it doesn’t flinch from the chilling reality that we are all, ultimately, groping our way alone through the darkness of our finite existence.
Tom Scutt’s coolly elegant design presents us with a bifurcated tree encased in a huge glass vitrine, and set on a floor of cinders. It’s a landscape that is blasted, scorched, yet sleekly ultra-modern, and the action occurs in the near future. Payne opens and closes his drama with the same, horribly sad scene, an eviscerating encounter in which Carrie (Barbara Flynn) is confronted with the post-treatment indifference of Lorna (Zoë Wanamaker). In between, we loop backwards through time, to discover the genesis of the two women’s midlife romance, the gradual assault on Lorna’s health, and their resignation to the risks of medical intervention. A kind, carefully tactful but essentially remote medic, Miriam (Nina Sosanya) describes a neurological process that effectively replaces parts of Lorna’s brain with prosthetics. But her precise, professional focus is squarely on her work, and her patient; there is little that Miriam, or anyone else, can do to heal the terrible damage inflicted on the distraught Carrie.
The acting is faultless. Wanamaker’s Lorna is prickly, mischievous, sexy, funny, furious. Flynn’s Carrie, who we sense was the less extrovert half of the partnership, is shatteringly sad, so devastated by loss and grief, so utterly hopeless and betrayed in abandonment. If Lorna cannot, in the end, quite believe in or imagine their love, we emphatically do. And if Lorna’s treatment has altered her identity, it has changed Carrie’s too, since without love, she no longer feels whole. It’s harrowing to watch, intensely moving, and entirely absorbing.