Originally written for The Stage.
“I don’t really see this,” says Nick Payne, tapping the sturdy wooden table we are sitting at. “My brain just tells me that that’s what it is to steady me, because otherwise I’d freak out if I was really able to take in all the information around me.”
With a slight grin, the writer is explaining the research behind his new play Incognito, a cerebral interrogation of the mind’s inner workings. If it sounds like meaty material, it’s little surprise. Payne’s debut play If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, which won him the George Devine Award in 2009, collided domestic drama and climate science, while subsequent work has tackled bereavement, quantum physics and contemporary gender politics.
“I suppose it tends to start with something I read about,” Payne reflects. Thoughtful, unassuming and frequently apologetic, the playwright is quietly frustrated by his struggle to remember the genesis of specific projects. He admits that ideas emerge “mostly by chance” rather than through any desire to address a particular topic. “With Constellations, it was a conscious decision to try and find a form that was non-naturalistic,” he recalls as an example, adding that he “stumbled on that whole thing about the multiverse”.
Constellations, which imagined one relationship playing out in countless variations across multiple universes, was the play that convincingly cemented Payne’s career as a playwright. The show quickly transferred from the Royal Court to the West End and won Payne the Evening Standard Award for Best Play in 2012, as well as attracting an Olivier nomination. This followed a steady stream of new plays, including Wanderlust at the Royal Court and One Day When We Were Young for Paines Plough, but Constellations raised him to a new level.
“Only for the last year and a half has it started to feel like a career rather than something I’m doing with the hope that one day …” Payne trails off, as if afraid of tempting fate by acknowledging his recent success. For a number of years after moving to London from university, Payne subsidised his writing with shifts at the National Theatre bookshop and as a theatre usher, eventually committing to playwriting full-time in 2010 after his breakthrough with If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet.
Central to Payne’s development as a writer during this time was his participation in the Royal Court’s Young Writers’ Programme. “The Writers’ Programme made you feel a bit like you could be a writer,” he says, “because you’d go to a theatre every week and you’d see all the shows.” It was also while at the Royal Court that the first seed of an idea for Constellations was planted, Payne remembers, by a talk about physics given by former literary manager Ruth Little.
Incognito, which recently opened at the Hightide Festival ahead of a run at the Bush Theatre, continues some of the ideas about free will that emerged during the process of writing Constellations, returning Payne to his recurring preoccupation with science. Borrowing from the latest developments in neuroscience, the play questions the extent to which we are really in control of our own identities, exploring the complex and delicate mechanisms of the brain. Like much of the playwright’s work, it has involved extensive research.
“It’s not research in an academic way,” Payne is quick to add, admitting that the science in Constellations was flawed – and scientists had no problem telling him so. Instead, it is about knowing his characters and their motivations; his priority is to “make sure it’s dramatic above anything else”. For this reason, perhaps, Payne prefers talking to people over reading books: “I enjoy meeting people who do those jobs, and having my naive illusions of what they do and how exciting it must be shattered.”
As is often the case with Payne’s writing, it was the research behind Incognito that has moulded the shape of the play. “I thought there’s a form here that can hopefully feel like a brain solving everything for us,” he explains. The play begins as a confusing, fast-moving assault of information, switching rapidly between three different narratives situated at different points in time, before the various pieces of the puzzle gradually slot into place. “The idea that the brain is a sort of storytelling machine that keeps us going by building a narrative is partly what the play does.”
Although he first broke through with astutely observed naturalism, Payne is increasingly interested in experimenting with dramatic form. Incognito cleverly meshes form and content; Constellations, with its swift, snapshot scenes and complete absence of naturalistic staging, was born from a desire to temporarily ditch social realism and create “something that you couldn’t do in any other medium”. Recent project Blurred Lines, meanwhile, cast Payne in the role of collaborative creator, working closely with director Carrie Cracknell and a devising company of actors.
“That form thing, the question of how and why are you going to give your play a particular shape or structure or architecture, was not something we addressed until right at the very end,” Payne explains the process, admitting that this uncertainty made him “twitchy”. Blurred Lines was created over the space of two week-long workshops at the National Theatre Studio and four weeks of rehearsals directly prior to the show’s run in The Shed. It was a tight development period: at the beginning of week two of rehearsals, the team decided to scrap most of what they had produced so far, going on to devise almost the whole show in just three weeks.
Payne is eager to challenge himself in this way, insisting that he’s interested in “working in as many different ways as there are”. It would be a waste, he suggests, not to use the creative resources on hand in the rehearsal room. “There’s always a point in rehearsals where the performers start to know the play much better than you do. I think at that point you’re mad if you’re not listening to them going ‘I’ve got an idea’, or ‘can we try this’, or ‘I’m really stuck on this’.”
As a result, the playwright is less and less protective of his own work and is very open to making changes – even major ones – during the rehearsal process. Refreshingly, he is not particularly concerned with the idea of rigid fidelity to his vision. “That thing of serve the writing, I find a bit …” Payne pauses, making a face. “I don’t really get it.”
Payne’s most recent challenge has been a foray into television, but he quickly found himself pining for the thrill of the rehearsal room. “The development process was pretty similar, and I enjoyed that, but then you’re much less involved,” he explains. For him, the rehearsal process is the “fun bit of the job”, when all the most illuminating questions are asked about the play. And this, he suggests, is just as vital for him as the process of gathering the research or sitting at his desk writing.
“A film is made three times: it’s written and then shot and then edited. I sort of think it’s true of a play too. I enjoy being around for all of that.”
Photo: Bill Knight.