I’ve met up with two friend couples since seeing Nick Payne’s new play Elegy at the Donmar Warehouse on Saturday afternoon – well, seeing it via the loop in the theatre bar as a coughing fit drove me out of the auditorium five minutes into the performance – and I’ve posed the play’s central question to them as well as to my own partner Peter:
If your other half had a terminal disease, and you could save their life by erasing from his or her mind, all memory of you and your relationship, would you do it?
How about if they had expressly asked you to never do so, no matter how bad their suffering became?
Payne’s play, directed in this premiere production by Donmar artistic director Josie Rourke, is set in the near future and the disease in question is Alzheimer’s or something like it, though it’s not named. Zoe Wanamaker’s Lorna is diagnosed and she and her wife Carrie, played by Barbara Flynn, contemplate the radical but failsafe procedure – which, according to programme note, may someday be a real, medical possibility – advocated by doctor Miriam (Nina Sosanya), who watched her own mother die in the grips of dementia.
While Lorna is still compos mentis, she is certain that she does not want the treatment. She does not want to lose her relationship with her wife. But, as Lorna deteriorates, Carrie reconsiders. Is she being selfish?
The conversations with Peter and my friends prompted myriad mitigations:
- How much pain would your partner suffer from the disease?
- Would the cure cure them completely?
- How long might they live after the cure?
- How ironclad was the partner’s wish to forego the treatment?
- How likely would it be that the two of you could fall in love again?
- Would any of their memories ever come back? (The answer to that one is no)
Of those I’ve asked to date, Peter and indeed all the men – two of them a gay couple – were certain. Whether they were the sufferer or the survivor, they would opt for the memory-erasing cure. My friend Rebecca and I wavered. Maybe it’s a gender thing.
For me, I kept returning to a scene – early in the couple’s story but late in the chronologically reversed play – when we see Lorna and Carrie together, in love. They have a truly happy relationship.
When Carrie presses Lorna on the need to save her life:
“If it isn’t saving this life, then what’s the point?” says Carrie. ““There is no life without you.” She goes on: “Do not alter the very fabric of my being.”
These women are in their sixties, having met in their forties. We don’t learn about their lives and relationships before this point, only that finding each other was what came to save and define them.
Having met Peter in my forties, this is something I identify with very personally. Even in the intervening, sometimes cripplingly lonely, years between divorcing my first husband and meeting Peter – through the ups and downs of being single and in relationships with men who were clearly not ‘the one’ – I could anticipate this regret. To meet someone later in life is to always be aware of the scant time you may have together and the opportunities – children, golden anniversaries – that you will invariably miss.
In the play, Lorna too pinpoints the loss of “all the years I wasted before I met you and all the years [in the future] I won’t be able to get to know you better”.
If it were my own relationship being played out, if I were Lorna, I think that I too would make my wishes ironclad: leave me my memories for as long as I can possibly have them and let nature decide the rest.
Perhaps that makes me the selfish one: allowing Peter to watch me suffer. But I remember how difficult it was to find and nurture a happy relationship in the first place and I cherish how much it has enriched my life and fundamentally changed – for the better – the person that I am. Even if I won’t know what I’m missing, I don’t want to miss it.