There’s no doubt Incognito is a fascinating and adventurous piece of theatre. What else? Okay, intriguing and mysterious. And the probability is that some audiences will totally get it, the possibility is also some (members of this audience or that) will leave scratching their noggins, trying to stimulate the grey matter inside the skull…for the brain is a locus for the plot in this four-hander.
Incogni Incogn Inco Incognito is mysterious in several ways as it stretches through time and the actors are required to play with character. Technically, for ‘the actor’, the play is demanding, with each player required to play at least four characters, and as many as six, without benefit of costume change, or off-stage moments to reframe. Four actors and 21 characters. So now is the moment to play the critic and to assert that the four actors were fabulous, none did falter a line and in the show I saw, the second-only public performance, well the sold-out audience couldn’t stop the applause. The actors, Ben Prendergast, Kate Cole, Paul Ashcroft (all seasoned Red Stitch players) and guest Red Stitcher Jing-Xuan Chan, well deserved it. And throw in Directors Ella Caldwell and Brett Cousins & the rest of the crew. Incognito stimulating, I enjoyed it. The play was presented in minimalist-ish fashion, with a dodgy piano and a jar with brain bits pretty much the only stage props…well as stage objects, include the constant presence of the whole cast. You’ll understand if you go.
What’s it all about, Albert? Well, it’s sort of about Albert E’s brain, about the Einsteinian space-time continuum, about brain trauma, about same sex sorties and space-time ‘wormholes’ but essentially about a lot of ‘who am I?’ Maybe ‘who was I?’ and ‘Who will I become?’
Step outside time for a moment:
Einstein had a couple of goes at Relativity Theory, the first go in 1905 regarding time in a new way, in a partnership with space, as spacetime, and the radical notion, that the speed of light (in a vacuum) is the same for any observer, regardless of how and where measured and regardless of the inertial state the observer occupies. You could be on a train doing 200kph watching a conductor shining a flashlight or you could be on the platform watching that flash of light, and the speed of light (known as ‘c’) would be the same for the both of the you’s…it would love youse all, equally. The 1905 theory became known as the Special Theory because in 1917 Albert went further, and declared the General Theory of Relativity, where he shewed that e=mc2, and that gravity is like a web that actually bends and curves spacetime and holds objects like old boots and such junk in a big fishing net. And that simple equation is mighty powerful. For cXc times the mass of a thing is a huge number. Even when that thing is a hydrogen atom. Just ask Hiroshima. In short, the gravitational forces of a really heavy body, like a black hole, has so much gravity it distorts the nearby spacetime fabric muchly. Oddly enough, as I recall, Albert got his Nobel prize for something else – the photo-electric effect.
When Heisenberg sorted the Uncertainty Principle a few years later, Albert E (no relation to percussionist Sheila E, for Albert died in April 1955 and Sheila wasn’t even conceived until a year or two later – still…who knows?) was very dark about this Uncertainty Bizzo because he believed in precision, I guess. He wouldn’t wear it.
With Heisenberg, Quantum Mechanics and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle said you couldn’t know everything about the properties of sub-atomic particles – if you knew a lot about a particle’s momentum, you couldn’t know heaps about its position – and vice versa. I’m no physicist but if you have a massive observer (us, relative to an atom) with huge tongs trying not to bump a tiny little bit of stuff in an atom in a measuring attempt, then major problem. Sort of. Watch it, Clumsy Huge Scientist. For when you grab hold to measure where it is, you’ll bump it, you’ll change its angular momentum (called ‘spin’, I think)
Now when Albert heard this Heisenberg stuff, he freaked. No Way! ‘God does not play dice with the universe,’ he famously said, and if Heisenberg’s Uncertainty was certain he said, then this would be so – the Einstein–Podolsky–Rosen thought experiment or EPR which Alberto and a couple of mates thought up in 1935 – that two particles (formed from a photon) not in the same post code could instantaneously know each other’s business (ie: instantaneous being an unreality – faster than the speed of light, the impossible ‘spooky action at a distance’ effect, – banned by the Laws of Physics. I mention this because the play mentions this. So we come back to Incog… – oh, hang on, just a moment in time before we speak of ‘wormholes – there was a bloke at MIT in 1964 that developed this notion, called Bell’s Theorem, because his name was Mr Bell, and his work backed up Einstein and friends. And in an interview later, Mr Bell said the only way to escape the implications of his theorem was a theory called superdeterminism which postulates a world with zero free will. “Superdeterminists do not recognize the existence of genuine chances or possibilities anywhere in the cosmos” Wiki tells us on the WWW.
No chaos possible, everything precise and known –no dice!! Like Groundhog Day but not quite. So the complete absence of free will or wormholes, and the play Incognito likes wormholes, mentions wormholes and that… like a circle in time, brings us back to the play.
To step back inside time:
This play revels and reveals itself in the interplay of various karmic paths, if you will…the interplay of destinies—the probable and the possible, the likely and the impossible, the maybe and the implausible and the downright dopey…not an exact quote but one character says, like (but not exactly), ‘Hey Mac, you the guy that stole that brain? For real? Don’t tell me! Lemme shake your hand. I wanna buy you dinner! Hey Honey, this is the brain guy!’
And as we, the audience find ourselves almost from the first spoken sentence of the play…wondering what is real, where is this narrative going and whose reality it might be. As an actor switches accents and reference points after two minutes, we eventually realise we are now with a different character who is not in the space we were just in. And so on. So it goes. I think of Slaughterhouse 5 by Vonnegut. Dresden bombed. A mind blown.
It’s hard to discuss this play without entering spoiler alert territory, to be thwarting the pleasantries that awaits an audience from unravelling this intriguing piece of writing and acting. And not to ignore the notion that the theatrical device of waiting in the wings, is pulled inside out the plumbing work of like the outside of the Paris Beauborg art centre is/was, – at least as of 30 years back – is revealed.
At the end of the 95 minutes or so of theatre, at this night, outside the theatre in the very cool of the post-rained upon and presumably once-consecrated grounds of the church where Red Stitch has its funky space, several women, none to be possibly confused with someone in the teenage or early 20’s years, were in a chat circle, debating the probable likelihoods of what they’d just seen. Who had been doing what to whom and when. They were discussing the play with a certain casual excitement. I don’t know if they reached consensus, for I could not tarry, but in the chill of the night, an occasional word or phrase drifted my way. Still debating what they’d, and what I’d, just seen. I thought of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and growing old, wearing trousers too long, time past and time this or that…oh, all right, exactly to say in the first of what would be a quartet, ‘Burnt Norton’: ‘Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past.
Forgive me, if I say I have an average undergraduate’s understanding of particle physics and and had a rough idea of the concepts being explored within a humanist/psychological web. And saying that, now I recall the entrance to the actual theatre seating was covered with netting. Well perhaps not covered as such, netting was there. And leaving the play at curtain down, the netting reminded of Indra’s Net. (Indra the Vedic/Hindu/Buddhist god, one of heaps of gods) And in early Mahayana Buddhist mythology the metaphor of the net, as a form of hologram, where every element reflects or contains the whole. In which one experiences the passing of Time, but approaching the centre, nothingness. Which is a good thing in this sense. Freedom.
It is truly hard to believe, that the play uses as a motivation for some action, the actual real-world theft of Albert’s brain. Some people! You could perhaps think it a fictional device but no, researchers have proven it to be so, that a during the autopsy of the mortal remains of Einstein, the brain was removed from the skull and taken away. Stolen.
Einstein had wanted his body cremated (as it was, minus the ripped off brain) just so this silly state of affairs could not happen. He was a human, he knew it, and he didn’t want some relic, a fingernail, a hand, sitting in a jar in some temple somewhere being worshipped – ie: rubberneckers lollygagging round his relics. A rejection of scientific sainthood.
Though I find it idiotic to want to know how thought formed through the analysis of some human tissue kept in formaldehyde (it reminds me of London in the 17th Century and Daniel Defoe’s view (unless it was Swift, one or the other) that a bunch of doctors cut up a human to see what made him tick, and find that he is no longer ticking…he’s dead, he’s brown bread. So what’s the bid deal about life?)
But perhaps, probably, I know nothing of these things. There is another character, a neuro-psychologist, I think, a woman trying to unlock the secrets of an amnesiac (think Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates) and I think she’s thinking of batting for the other side, and a guy who might or might not have killed someone he thinks he just married and…and…
To say anymore plot is to be unfair to play and audience, IMHO. I’ll leave it at that. I’ve said the play is very modern though it may or may not conclude, plotwise, in a way that satisfies all…but certainly with nice twists…and unless I missed it, the show didn’t extend into territory like the TV series, Life on Mars, of actual time-switching…more the gradual accumulation of the truth of a thing and the revelation of the hidden or the just unknown coming to be known. In time. Like an Einstein Relativity of the Mind, each person’s ‘time’ is different and I am reminded, who knows why, of Pontius Pilate and his ‘ecce homo’…Here is the Man. I give you the Man. Blind Justice. I give you the Play. Perhaps that is part of the raison d’etre of the piece, which is mercifully (and I don’t mean this in a cruel way) not overly-long. And I think quite a successful entertainment. Finally, it’s again, hats off to the actors. Holding down one or two characters, with costume changes and a ciggy of a swig of sody-pop off-stage is hard enough. This is something else. This is another level.
And as my friend, who accompanied me said on the way out, ‘It really makes you think, but I’m not quite sure about what.’ But she’s an economist.
Notes: The actors each have a substantial body of work on stage and on the small screen and the author, Nick Payne, is a mid-30’s Brit who has had success in London and had Jake Gyllenhaal acting in a NYC season of an early play. Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins appeared in Constellations at Royal Court Theatre a few years ago, and it, too, is a play which gives a nod to Quantum Mechanics. Payne’s Incognito has had seasons with much success in London and in New York.