Constellations – image courtesy of Official Theatre London
Finally, I get round to reviewing this stellar (sorry) production, originally staged at the Royal Court and now playing at the Duke of York Theatre – I wanted to see it when it was the former, but missed the cut. You know, it’s the classic procrastination period until finally all the tickets have been snapped up. You can buy tickets on the internet and it’s a case of – ah, I’ll do it when I’m not feeling so broke. Usually for me, in the world of cash, I’m perpetually sliding down so it’s usually best to buy early – in this case, maybe not – I got them at a reasonable price in a place where I don’t have to strain my neck so much! Result!
Anyway, onto the actual show.
What strikes me the most is the beautiful yet minimal staging – a flotilla of balloons and the gumball-esque constructs upstage. You might think it’s the beginning of a party, when the balloons will be savagely cut down to allow another frieze frame of a scenario – but it’s recurrent throughout the play. Of course, theatre is adept at creating a particular angle or snapshot of a scenario and parade it for all to see, and this is no exception. However, although the cast is small — a two hander – it inevitably spans a multi-verse of different routes and paths the two characters take in their relationship. It’s often a critique of theatre that it cannot create mega texts in the same way as Science Fiction can in the same way as say film or the novel, but this spans alternate timelines in such a poignant, yet stripped down way (the poignant part will be too spoiler-ish, but it is very touching – and another way theatre can create the idea of disconnect and miscommunication much more directly than most media).
An apiarist (a bee-keeper to you and I) Roland (Rafe Spall) and a cosmologist Marianne (Sally Hawkins) are presented in many different scenarios – where they make it down the aisle to where they don’t even make it past the first conversation. You’d think it would be hard to communicate this, but Nick Payne’s great, simplistic yet powerful writing drives the message within the first few minutes. It opens with a cheerful icebreaker as Sally Hawkins attempts to get Rafe Spall to lick his elbow – saying that this will promote immortality – a rather chilling aspect in hindsight. His reactions differ from him being disinterested, to being otherwise engaged (him and her), to actually continuing the conversation. The acting in this is superb, and Rafe Spall being known for his role in the dry comedy Jeff vs. Life actually helps I think, in the way that his life is being portrayed as branching off in different directions as a result of different and slight permutations. How the characters stop, start, chop and change from one reality to the next, with the emotional ability to switch chameleon-like to the context was really engaging to watch. I did get very emotional at several points, as even though Nick Payne gets to voice the concept of quantum entanglement and the alternative universes through the cosmologist, there is a strong human quality to it that we can all empathise with. What if I did this differently? What if I wasn’t there to meet him/her? Was I meant to marry them from the beginning and can I change my fate? The idea of alternate realities can absolve us of some responsibility – what we may have done in one branch we may have done differently, or does it increase our sense of having to do things exactly in our minds in order to create the rather ubiquitous term of “utopia”? What is out of our control? It’s an amazing piece, that only an hour long and spanning several realities of just two people, can satisfy mentally and emotionally for a long time after viewing.
I do believe that this is a great example of Science Fiction in theatre – taking a concept and staging it through metaphor, emphasising human reaction and emotional connect like links on a chain. A must see. Nick Payne is one of the great emerging talents in the playwriting scene – I’ve read comparisons to him with Tom Stoppard, but I feel this play in particular is more Churchill-esque, with that simplistic yet raw dialogue – and how he creates potent images with minimalist settings. Michael Longhurst has done a great job in directing this, too.