Constellations is one of the most beautiful, thoughtful plays I’ve seen. I saw it at Richmond Theatre, though it premiered at the Royal Court in 2012. It’s original, inventive and intelligent, yet its cleverness never overshadows its moving exploration of human truths and infinite possibilities.
Louise Brealey and Joe Armstrong play Marianne and Roland, a geeky quantum physicist and a genial beekeeper, first seen taking tentative steps to a new relationship… or not, depending on the timeline…
Nick Payne’s wonderfully crafted play sees the couple in numerous realities at different stages in their relationship, creating multiple worlds and demonstrating how different paths stem from the same starting point in universes with unlimited parallel dimensions.
It’s a clever concept and could have been an intellectual exercise inaccessible to the average theatregoer (i.e. me). Instead, Payne’s funny, moving script and Brealey and Armstrong’s engaging performances fuse together to create a compelling piece, even when tackling difficult subjects such as the science of string theory and life in the shadow of terminal illness.
Tom Scutt’s set is deceptively simple, with no props or scenery, but consists of dozens of balloons floating above and around the edges of the raised stage. I am informed by the play’s programme that these are technically called “chromospheres”. You learn something new every day…
The luminescence and colours of these balloons, sorry, chromospheres, change with each scene, giving visual clues to the audience (and probably the actors!) which multiverse is being inhabited. Lee Curran deserves special praise for his lighting design which adds so much atmosphere and beauty to the play.
The director, Michael Longhurst, has expertly guided the play from the Royal Court, via Broadway, back to the UK with different casts along the way. I found myself wondering how the changing casts played scenes differently – a multiverse of actors with a multiverse of scenes.
Joe Armstrong gave the mostly steady Roland a bloke-ish Everyman charm, his repeated marriage proposals to Marianne being a special joy. There were dark moments too – a shocking scene where Roland hits Marianne drew gasps from the audience and was a sobering moment among the more light-hearted exchanges.
Louise Brealey’s performance as Marianne was beautifully pitched, presenting us with a funny, clever, vulnerable character, always true to herself whatever the universe. She was nerdily convincing when gleefully explaining her complex cosmology research and truly heartbreaking in the scenes which play out her and Roland’s reactions to her brain tumour diagnosis. At the curtain call, she looked utterly spent.
The demands of playing these infinite possibilities must’ve been huge on the actors, having to switch emotions in the blink of a lighting change. The pace of the play (only 70 minutes with no interval) and the split second scene changes made it an intense journey for the audience too. But one I would not have missed for all the world (any world in any universe!)
PS: I also now know a great deal more about the reproductive habits of bees than I ever expected to know…