Constellations (Wanamaker/Capaldi) – Donmar Warehouse

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer: Nick Payne

Director: Michael Longhurst

The Donmar is now streaming all four versions of the 2021 production of Nick Payne’s award-winning Constellations. In this inventive re-imagining of the 2012 original, director Michael Longhurst offers the same play with four different pairs of actors: Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah; Peter Capaldi and Zoë Wanamaker; Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey and Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O’Dowd. You can see any one as a stand-alone but like so many of this summer’s enthusiastic West End audiences, you may be tempted to return to see what a new couple bring to the script.

Wanamaker and Capaldi’s maturity gives both charm and wariness to the roles. Where, for instance, Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey are often sprawled on the floor in erotic ease, Wanamaker and Capaldi tend to stand awkwardly apart. They’ve been around the block, so are quick to misread signals, take offence, push each other away. Marianne’s long life experience gives power to her haunting memories of her mother’s lingering death. But their story is at the same time often laugh-out-loud funny.

Payne playfully experiments with the idea that every choice, every decision we’ve ever made – and never made – exists. Perhaps several different outcomes can co-exist simultaneously? He shows this through rapid reruns of fragmentary scenes, each with a slightly different result. What if the couple’s chance meeting stalled with the mention of another partner? What if the embryonic relationship falters early on, when, for instance a rebuffed Roland awkwardly asks Marianne for feedback on a date?

We are all aware that every moment of our lives is contingent, every ‘what if?’ suggesting a completely different outcome. We may not be aware that this is evidence, as Marianne explains, of a quantum multiverse. We may, like Roland, find it hard to follow these ideas of theoretical cosmology, but Payne already has us mesmerised with life’s possibilities.

The imaginative staging is integral to the overall effect. The stage is a simple square surrounded and overhung by balloons – symbols of festivity or transience? The sound design (David McSeveney) marks scene changes with a strange sound, like the crackle of static electricity.

The story-telling is powerful in its compact nature and directed with incredible pace. There is a clear linear narrative – albeit one challenged by constant reminders of alternatives – but there are also sudden time switches. Oblique references to tiredness give the early relationship strange tinges of possible futures. So too there is infidelity – in one version it is hers, in another his. Whichever, a breach has occurred. The play turns darker and more wonderful as their time together is threatened. But time again is made strange. We are once more aware of moments in life where we stood at a threshold – nothing is every going to be the same again.

Peter Capaldi and Zoë Wanamaker bring a mature playfulness to the two roles. We believe in their moments of awkwardness, the relative experience making their discovery of love all the more touching. Capaldi is sometimes quick to explode, but so too is he funny and tender. Wanamaker can be self-protective and spiky but also sweetly mischievous. It’s a delightful pairing that makes much of the bittersweet tone of the piece.

Available here until 29 November 2021

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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