'Mnemonic' review — this brain-teasing metaphysical thriller is still an extraordinary feat

Read our review of Complicité's memory play Mnemonic, now in performances at the National Theatre to 10 August.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Plays don’t come headier or more challenging than Complicité’s brain-teasing Mnemonic, which, in keeping with the title, I remember fondly from its first airing at the National Theatre 23 years ago, following a world premiere just prior to the millennium in Salzburg.

And here it is revived and refreshed, no longer boasting its director/creator Simon McBurney in the defining role, but with several members of the original company (Tim McMullan and Richard Katz amongst them) still along for the ride.

References to Brexit, 9/11, and the war in Ukraine are new to the text this time out, and Khalid Abdalla (Dodi Fayed in The Crown) has inherited McBurney’s pole position as the compère of sorts who is also one-half of a fraught romantic relationship and, wait for it, a centuries-dead corpse (Otzi the iceman) whose body was discovered in 1991 on the Austria-Italy Alpine border.

The actor is seen naked at the front of the stage, his back to the audience, but only after he has started proceedings (clothed!) with a warm-up act in which he reports having been born in Scotland but without a “Mc” to show for it.

Soon after, we are asked to withdraw from the pouch that comes with every seat both an eye mask and a leaf: the task is to caress the leaf in our sightless state whilst pondering the existence of the hippocampus and the curious phenomenon that is memory.

Mnemonic - LT - 1200

The eye mask helps encourage the lateral thinking of a non-linear play which makes much of the bare-bones existence of a single prop –a chair centre-stage – only to morph, as is the Complicité norm, into a dazzling technical achievement that conjoins Michael Levine’s set, Paul Anderson’s lighting, and Christopher Shutt’s sound into a metaphysical thriller, or prolonged existential enquiry, lasting two hours with no interval.

Crucial, too, is Richard Horvath’s video design to lending dimension to a shape-shifting theatrical experience that may confound Complicité uninitiates but serves as a reminder of a company that has been carving out a singular niche across 40 or so years.

Eileen Walsh plays a questing Irishwoman, Alice, who is trying to connect with a family lost in various ways to her – not least her husband, Omar, who is among Abdalla’s multiple assignments.

Themes come thick and fast – migration and identity, our surrender to the mystical set against a reliance on the practical. But the puzzle play aspects of the production allow for plentiful humour amidst the cogitation. Expected fun is had at the expense of a bumptious American couple who proffer vegan biscuits on a train whilst on a three-week whistle-stop tour of Europe, and a panel discussion chaired late in the show by the protean Tim McMullan is a classic of its kind: anyone who has dipped into academe will be especially tickled there.

I admit to sensing some strain in the early engagement between Abdalla and his audience, and the fact remains that you have to switch into Complicité’s frequency for the play fully to land. (Cabaret alum Richard Katz as, amongst others, a pollen analyst seizes every opportunity allowed him, though the cast functions throughout as a seamlessly integrated whole.)

What you make of it all in the end will be as varied as the leaves we are all asked to fondle. Theatre in some essential way is as mysterious a thing as memory: Mnemonic made a lasting impression on me at the start of this century, and it has again as we hurtle hesitantly but also, on this evidence, beautifully through it.

Mnemonic is at the National Theatre through 10 August.

Photo credit: Mnemonic (Photos by Johan Persson)

Originally published on

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