Topping off the Royal Court’s West End season, Nick Payne’s Constellations is the only production from the three part season – which also included Laura Wade’s Posh and April De Angelis’ Jumpy – to transfer from the Sloane Square venue’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.
Worlds apart from the Royal Court’s intimate upstairs space, there was a danger that the Duke of York’s much larger stage would overwhelm the tender two-hander about university quantum cosmologist Marianne and beekeeper Roland whose lives collide at a friend’s barbecue, but that certainly isn’t the case when left in the hands of Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall.
Putting the storyline on paper is a nigh on impossible task. Rather than charting a linear tale, Constellations is formed of a series of snapshots, presenting the same situation and its multiple different outcomes, with Hawkins and Spall playing out each scenario, from an encounter at a ballroom dancing lesson to the revelation of potentially life-changing test results, in their many hilarious and heart-breaking ways.
It sounds repetitive. It is. But in a good way. While the play begins as a narrative reminiscent of American film Groundhog Day, it develops into a deep and intriguing metaphor for life, exploring the intricacies of the Many Worlds – or Multiverse – theory, an interpretation of quantum mechanics that postulates the existence of an infinite number of universes where all alternative choices co-exist simultaneously.
Tom Scutt’s cleverly designed set helps to visualise this multitude of possibilities with spherical balloons suspended from the ceiling, but the main legwork comes from the play’s central duo, whose dramatically changing emotions portray with the utmost clarity the many paths their lives could take.
As David McSeveney and Lee Curran’s innovative sound and lighting serve to dissect the play into brief glimpses of their relationship, Spall’s performance, too, is dissevered, alternating between endearing wit and violent anger, while Hawkins dramatically flits from a bubbly and talkative intellectual to a panicked and burdened invalid whose life in this universe may or may not have been turned upside down.
While Michael Longhurst’s production is packed full of wit and emotion, it is lacking in conclusions and answers, but refreshingly so. We never quite know what came of their meeting at the barbecue, whether Heather married a PE teacher, how Roland proposed to Marianne, or if he even proposed at all, in this universe at least, but what we do know is that our mind-boggling bewilderment is worth it for the 70 thought-provoking minutes that Constellations provides.
Previous review from the Royal Court, by Matthew Amer:
Two characters, a blank stage, a meeting; Nick Payne’s Constellations is an emotional, emotive, intelligent, inventive game of theatrical spot the difference.
To paraphrase a popular bumper sticker, you don’t have to be a quantum physicist to enjoy Constellations, but it helps.
In short, and as far as I understand – which is about as far as I could throw a quark – there is a theory which states that there could be an infinite number of universes reflecting any and every decision we ever or never made.
So far, so Doctor Who, but Payne’s drama is more everyday than Gallifrey, exploring one romance as it may unfold in a handful of these universes.
From an awkward barbecue meeting where ice-breaking lines fall flatter than a squashed economy burger from Sally Hawkins’s awkward physicist Marianne, through her growing – or not – relationship with Rafe Spall’s mild-mannered, softly spoken beekeeper Roland, we follow the possible pathways of their random relationship.
It takes a little getting used to, seeing the same scene replayed with a different emphasis, a cheeky tweak here or a subtle change there, yet even with the repetition and deftly altering characters, Hawkins and Spall as Marianne and Roland continue to hook you in and make you care. They’re likeable and you root for them, there’s humour and heartache. The possibilities really are endless. Yet every now and then Payne slips in a darker scene, one that isn’t immediately repeated, one that doesn’t immediate make sense. It will; oh how it will.
What might never make sense is Tom Scutt’s design, which sees a bare, in the round stage loomed over by a ceiling of white balloons. Gazing up is like looking at an inviting bubble bath from beneath the surface. But why should it have to make sense when just by existing it brings its own special sense of wonder?
In another universe there is probably a version of me that was not wholly enamoured and engaged by Constellations. I’m glad I’m not there.