Writer: Nick Payne
Director: Michael Longhurst
Reviewer: Laura Maley
Award-winning Constellations follows runs at London’s Royal Court Theatre, in the West End and on Broadway with a welcome UK tour. It’s a stunningly clever play; a vital and intense two-hander which takes in theoretical physics, relationships – and those that never were, and honey.
Each scene takes place in a different universe, at pivotal points in each example of a relationship between Marianne (Louise Brealey) and Roland (Joe Armstrong). And there are a lot of scenes, some only a few sentences long. To begin, the audience is thrown – mid-conversation – into a barbecue, witnessing the various successes and failures Marianne has with her opening conversational gambit to Roland about the impossibility of licking your own elbow. It’s a bold move not just by Marianne but by writer Nick Payne, in a play which seems to throw some key narrative and theatrical conventions out of the window.
Designer Tom Scutt and lighting designer Lee Curran create a striking setting. The two actors are on stage throughout, in a fast paced 70-minute piece accompanied by a cluster of differently-sized white balloons, suffused with light and occasional bursts of colour. The simplicity is beautiful, and fitting in its echo of infinite universes.
Marianne seems to be more fully drawn as a character, allowing Brealey to give a more multi-dimensional performance: passionate and energetic to the point of mania, and deeply affecting when in distress. Roland seems a steadier character, more often reacting to Marianne than initiating plot lines. However, Armstrong’s multiple “There are three different kinds of bees…” speeches are brilliantly varied, and his own quieter passion, and steadiness is crucial in later scenes.
The physics theories outlined in Constellations will make sense to some, and leave others confused but it shouldn’t put off potential audiences. The characters, their story variations and choices, are compelling and believable. It may be easier to set any confusion aside and simply go with the idea that time is, as explained in Doctor Who, “wibbly wobbly”.
The slightest repositioning by the actors between the scenes from different universes is a tiny jolt of reminder to the audience of the worlds between each moment – and that there is not a linear narrative. With infinite possibilities between universes, one feels at times as though the audience is seeing a rehearsal process brought to life. Brealey and Armstrong, thoughtfully directed by Michael Longhurst, look to be enjoying this chance to explore emotions and intonations as they deliver Payne’s script from the page. Constellations is afterall a play of possibilities, of what ifs and near misses, of choice and chance.
To follow the logic of Constellations, in another universe tonight, this same audience is watching another play, unmoved and unimpressed. But in this universe tonight’s bright star will shine for many of them, for a long time.
Runs until 23 May