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Published 28 April 2016

What’s it all about?

Imagine a future where memories could be cut from your brain, where faith could be removed with a scalpel and addiction cured with the swipe of a surgeon’s hand. A future where the most awful of pains could be deleted from your mind and dementia could be cured by shaving off the last few decades of data from your consciousness.

It’s in this Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind world we find ourselves in the latest of Nick Payne’s thought-provoking dramas that asks just where our ‘self’ lies, whether love really transcends the rules of science or if all we are can be reduced down to neural pathways and white matter.

Told through a series of short scenes that move throughout the timeline of one married couple’s relationship, we watch an illness take hold, a drastic solution take place and the shock horror when one can no longer remember the other with the help of a bittersweet restart button.

Who’s in it?

Zoë Wanamaker and Barbara Flynn star as the couple whose lives are unravelled and sewn together in front of our eyes as the narrative travels back and forwards through their own history of love. As you might well predict with actors of this calibre, they’re incredible.

As the half of the pair struck down with the torturous degenerative disease Wanamaker gives a steely double performance: sometimes playing the Lorna her wife so desperately loves – dry, witty, morbid and vividly alive – at others, the version of herself left after the last 30 years of her life have been removed; oddly robotic, cold and unemotional. Throughout Flynn is heartbreakingly sincere, bringing Carrie’s bitter struggle to accept love can be removed under anaesthetic to life with stunning effect.

What should I look out for?

Payne’s ultra-naturalistic dialogue, which Nina Sosanya nails as a doctor for whom the black and white rules of science prove more compelling than philosophical arguments.

Tom Scutt’s arresting design that places us in a futuristic landscape with a bed of volcanic sand providing the floor and a vast tree cut in two to symbolise the mind. It’s brutal and dark but hides surprises as Lorna buries through the sand to find well-thumbed books of poems.

In a nutshell?

Nick Payne’s Elegy is a beautiful, terrifying, devastating and provocative triumph of the mind.

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Will I like it?

If you like beautiful writing and stunning staging, then yes. Like Payne’s previous plays Constellations and Incognito, Elegy is a visceral and dreamlike experience as memories, love and loss lap against one another. It’s a play soaked in passion, even as it asks big questions about the future of science and exactly how much we can lose of our ‘self’ and still call our life ‘our life’.

When the lights go up on a Payne play, it’s like finishing a great book, the characters seem to go on living and breathing for years to come, even without the audience to watch over them.

Elegy is playing until 18 June. You can book tickets through the Donmar Warehouse’s website.


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