There are several alternate universes happening right now where Nick Payne’s new play for the Royal Court, Constellations, is an unmitigated disaster, a pretentious mess, a lolloping irrelevant over-reaching exercise in disappearing up one’s own backside. Luckily, I get to review the Constellations that takes place in this universe, the one that is a dynamic, energetic, thoughtful, funny, moving, intelligent triumph.
Payne’s play, an exploration of a relationship using the complex framework of multi-verse quantum theory, could fall from its tightrope at any moment, and yet it manages to deliver an athletic 70 minutes, a youthful, snappy piece of theatre. The magnificent Sally Hawkins as Marianne and the excellent Rafe Spall as Roland, who occupy the stage throughout, take us through the many meandering connotations of their characters’ interjections, from random encounters, to marriage, infidelity and reconciliation. We see them meet and their relationship evolve in a variety of well-judged comedic early scenes, as the multi-verse concept splays off into different, but tightly bound strands. Payne is a playwright to his core, and he seems to know instinctively the parameters of an audience’s tolerance for this kind of thing. Repetition – which is the stylistic hallmark of this play and it’s most obvious mainstream ancestors in Sliding Doors and Groundhog Day – is perhaps the most difficult structure from which to squeeze viable drama, but Payne has judged this well. Never loading the audience down with too much quantum theory (there are apparently only seven lines of science in the play, although it does not always feel like it), or over-stretching the point to which repetition becomes tiresome, Payne shows himself to be a writer who is comfortable placing a great deal of faith in the hands of his actors. Everything – the heart and soul, the intelligence and wit of Payne’s script – depends upon the elasticity of the actors’ durable intelligence. And he could not have found two better-equipped vessels than Hawkins and Spall.
As the play stammers towards its extremely moving conclusion(s), (where, against all the odds, a play about divergent strands of existence manages to tie up the loose ends), the audience is expertly drip-fed the significant molecules that create the drama of the characters. The truth is, is that comparisons to the mawkish Sliding Doors and the overrated Groundhog Day are entirely misplaced, for the ancestors of this play are Borges’ ‘Garden of the Forking Paths’ and Kurt Vonnegut Jnr’s Slaughterhouse Five – the precedents are not only literary, but they are works of genius, not zany comedies or Gwyneth Paltrow vehicles. Theatrically, Payne is not only aware of the shadow of Caryl Churchill’s Blue Heart, but he is also aware that he is not a writer of literary brimstone like Churchill, but a writer concerned with people and their relationships. The play is warm, extremely funny, and comes at us with a terribly moving finale.
The comedy falls away in this play, like so many other things do, reflected in the crumbling eerie balloon-decked stage design. It is a script and double-handed performance of extreme richness that becomes slowly eviscerated to one microcosmic question of existence itself. All of the strands fall into the defining question that poses itself in the end, and the truly remarkable thing about Payne’s play is that he manages to make that question stick; even quantum theory is largely irrelevant in light of where we all end up. Are we even more insignificant for these realisations rather than endowed with wisdom and meaning? As with all great art, the essence here is love, be it apparent or absent. What Payne has given himself, and therefore us, is the opportunity to explore its absence and apparentness in one short play in the personal space of two likeable (on the whole) characters. And the tumult of this experiment is the humanity that throbs within the philosophy of the science: everything must end, regardless of its worth.
In Payne the Royal Court has an exciting intellectual playwright who seemingly fits into the genealogy of playwrights the esteemed institution has produced since John Osborne in 1957 with admirable ease. Constellations is not an obvious sell – a new play about quantum mechanics and modern relationships – and that it is doing so well is in part due to the Royal Court stamp. But this is vital theatre that goes for the serious, intangible topics, and will resist one-line high-concept pitch devotees. It is entertaining – dazzlingly so – and not once does it feel like a lecture. But Payne has very much followed in the footsteps of Borges (who explored his ideas of the multiverse in a Buchan-esque World War One spy thriller) and Vonnegut Jnr (who explored his in a World War Two sci-fi epic). Constellations is not just a profoundly enjoyable play about the postmodern existentialist questions, it is a play about the answers that science and literature have strived to provide.