7th July, 2021, matinee
‘There’s no straightforward explanation I’m afraid’
This is the first time I’ve seen Constellations but, in the spirit of the play, I wondered how differently I might have watched this latest iteration of Nick Payne’s modern classic if I’d seen the original production in 2012. It’s feasible that I could’ve seen it. 2012 was around the time I started to go to London on my own and see a greater variety of theatre. And I did see Laura Wade’s Posh as part of the same West End season of Royal Court transfers so it is entirely possible I could have ventured to this. Back then, I was a single, unemployed student still living at home. Now, in 2021, I’m a married, employed homeowner still at university. Where will I be, I wonder, when the next iteration of this play comes about?
Constellations is a love story between Marianne, a scientist, and Roland, a beekeeper, which plays with the possibility that we’re part of a multiverse. It’s a world (or several) where all of our decisions and their outcomes ‘can co-exist simultaneously’. As Marianne puts it, ‘in the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes’. In a running time of 70 minutes, Michael Longhurst’s economic production played on Tom Scutt’s striking and now iconic design, we see glimpses of their relationship playing out in the multiverse. The idea is elevated by this revival having four different casts to reiterate the amount of possibilities to be pondered over. Dramatically, this concept is entertaining and scientifically, it is mind-boggling. I don’t normally enjoy doing such a biopsy on a play (who am I kidding, I love it!) but Constellations has left me craving further meaning.
The play’s structure is fascinating. It initially reminded me of Caryl Churchill’s Blue Heart (1997). Scenes jump back to the beginning and are replayed, sometimes with minor word fluctuations, sometimes with momentous changes. They head in different directions, relationship dynamics shift, motivations and moods change. It can jump from rain to sunshine, from violence to tenderness. But it also largely follows a chronological narrative arc:
· First encounter
· Getting together
· Splitting up
· Dance lessons, reuniting
· Waiting for the taxi
· Dance lessons, reuniting
These rough sections are interspersed with snippets which jump forward to late in their relationship when Marianne’s illness is quite advanced. I was expecting one scene to swap the characters’ roles – for Roland to become the scientist and Marianne the beekeeper. This may have added a dynamic of another possible universe, but I now think it would have been a frivolous, redundant change. Instead, although Payne presents different outcomes in different universes, there is structure, purpose and sentiment behind it, and we care all the more for Marianne and Roland because of it. Maybe such an exercise in breaking down the scenes is futile but it’s natural to seek meaning. Meaning is something Roland mostly craves. He wants to know what exactly Marianne does for a living, why doesn’t she want him to stay the night, when does he have to move out, what her diagnosis is. And he admires the simple existence of bees: ‘If only we could understand why it is that we’re here and what it is that we’re meant to spend our lives doing’. Marianne is perhaps more accepting of the unknown. However, in one universe it is Roland who is more accepting of uncertainty. What is it, I wonder, which led to that outcome? As Marianne says, there’s no straightforward explanation I’m afraid.
Reading the text, it’s all played out as one scene with each universe separated by a line. This flow is achieved by Longhurst’s short, sharp changes evoked by pops of sound and sudden lighting changes. In this version produced by the Donmar Warehouse, Zoë Wanamaker played Marianne and Peter Capaldi played Roland. Casting an older couple opens up new interpretations to the text. For instance, when the couple reunites at dance classes, Roland tells us Heather is getting married. We later find out this is his sister but I initially assumed it was his daughter from a previous marriage: another life. And when Marianne reveals her diagnosis, we hear that it may have been in her favour if she was under 40. Age alters how we perceive her illness. But overall, their age prompts us to reflect on their lived experience and the multitude of other lives and outcomes they may have, the time they’ve spent together and indeed the time they’ve spent apart. Could it be that they’ve known each other 40 or more years by the time they’re contemplating life without Marianne, making that penultimate scene all the more poignant:
‘We have all the time we’ve always had.
You’ll still have all our time.
There’s not going to be any more or less of it.
Once I’m gone.’
There are certainly parallels with Payne’s Elegy (2016) which also starred Wanamaker at the Donmar. Here the language is more prosaic, characters wear their heart on their sleeve more, but both plays seem to be interested in how we articulate ourselves. It’s a beautiful play, cathartic, full of multiple interpretations, humour and warmth. On another note, we both felt safe and confident in the safety measures Nimax Theatres had put in place.
Constellations plays at the Vaudeville Theatre until 12th September, 2021. Wanamaker and Capaldi have finished their run, however the other three companies continue to play in rep: Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah play until 1st August; Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey play from 30th July-11th September; and Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O’Dowd play from 6th August-12th September.