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Mnemonic – National Theatre | Review

None of the explanations given in Mnemonic helped me to understand the term – it is, thanks to Google (other search engines are available) both a noun and an adjective. In the former, it’s a device or a prompt that helps one remember something. For instance, in primary school I learned the colours of the rainbow by using the mnemonic ‘Richard of York gave battle in vain’, and it was only in secondary school that I discovered the infinitely easier ‘Roy G. Biv’. As an adjective, it has more or less the same purpose – an act that aids the memory. As far as this show goes, almost anything can be a mnemonic: a wristwatch passed down from a previous generation, for instance, brings to mind certain memories for its current proprietor.

Kostas Philippoglou and Eileen Walsh in Mnemonic at the National Theatre. Photo credit: Johan Persson.
Kostas Philippoglou and Eileen Walsh in Mnemonic at the National Theatre. Photo credit: Johan Persson.

The show begins with a long preamble. The audience is supplied with two small pouches each, one grey and one black. The instructions printed on the grey one read: “Please do not open this bag until asked to do so”, and while it would be giving too much away to divulge its contents (irrespective of which point in the evening’s proceedings your reviewer decided to dispense with obedience to authority and have a peek anyway) there weren’t any complimentary cigarettes, vapes or wine to enjoy or pass on to someone else later. The black pouch, rather than simply saying, “Your phone goes in here” quaintly read, “We invite you to switch off from the outside world by silencing or turning off your phone and putting it in this bag”.

Indeed, I found the preamble more entertaining than the main story, perhaps because it was more focused, even if it stylistically and deliberately came across more as a stream of consciousness rather than a scripted scene. Ultimately, one can choose to ‘participate’ (inverted commas mine, because nobody has to actually say anything or get out of one’s seat to join the audience participation element of the show) as much or as little as one wants to. Khalid Abdalla gives a briskly paced direct address to the audience, describing how interconnected the world is, whether we acknowledge it or not. His line of argument is, in the end, the sort of thing one learns in a school classroom – we’re all, if you trace your lineage back far enough, descended from the same people (Abdalla doesn’t use the term ‘Adam and Eve’ but it appears to be what he’s getting at). But it is the way in which he reaches this conclusion that drew me in and kept me engaged.

The problem with the show proper is that while it is ambitious, it is also fragmented. There’s a story about Alice, who has left who I assume is her partner (she longs for him to keep talking when they are on the phone, because she wants to hear his voice) in search of her biological father, whom she has never met. Another story involves a taxi driver who is Greek but has been in Britain for so long that he now identifies as British. Nonetheless, he is considering retiring to Melbourne because it has a substantial Greek population. The main one, as far as I could tell, is about Ötzi, known as The Iceman, a frozen human body reckoned to be approximately 5,300 years old, who was discovered by tourists in the Alps in 1991. There were extensive investigations into how he died, and various theories posited in a mildly amusing but otherwise very wordy (and gloriously multilingual) scene in which experts of various disciplines made different assertions based on their findings.

It was difficult, though, to grasp what the links were between The Iceman story and the other tales in this complex tapestry, and what connections there were seemed crowbarred in, and therefore contrived. Some of the dialogue was repetitive, with speech on top of speech, which meant (to me at least) it was rather like trying to listen to multiple people talking at the same time and not being able to fully comprehend any of it. This two-hour show without an interval could have done without that sort of thing. Some interesting political points are made, in the week of a General Election, no less. It is always a pleasure to see a cast enjoying themselves on stage. But the different plot elements didn’t really come together, and it is a very strange and somewhat pretentious production.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Devised by the original company and reimagined in 2024 by: Khalid Abdalla, Hisham Abdel Razek (collaborator), Thomas Arnold (collaborator), Richard Katz, Laurenz Laufenberg, Tim McMullan, Kostas Philippoglou, Sarah Slimani, Sophie Steer (collaborator), Eileen Walsh, Arthur Wilson (collaborator)

Conceived and directed by Simon McBurney
Set Designer: Michael Levine
Costume Designer: Christina Cunningham
Lighting Designer: Paul Anderson
Sound Designer: Christopher Shutt
Video Designer: Roland Horvath for rocafilm
Casting Director: Alastair Coomer CDG

A body is found in the ice, and a woman is looking for her father while a man searches for his lost lover.

This story is as much about origins as it is about memory, and remembering what is lost. Mnemonic asks: what is our place in the natural world? How have human relationships with the environment shaped patterns of migration? Who are we, and where do we come from?

National Theatre
22 June to 10 August 2024


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