Constellations is a fascinating play, as in many ways it is both concise and minimalist, while at the same time pondering huge and sprawling infinitesimal possibilities. Nick Payne’s acclaimed one-act drama premiered at the Royal Court (London’s, not ours) in 2012, and even attracted Hollywood actor Jake Gyllenhaal to the role of Roland on Broadway. Now it is on a national tour, including last week’s stop at the Playhouse.
You can see why this seventy-minute two-hander would be a performer’s dream. The play examines the relationship between affable beekeeper Roland (in this case, Joe Armstrong) and scientist Marianne (Louise Brealey, not a million miles away from possibly her best-known role as Molly in Sherlock), from their first meeting to the episode that ultimately parts them.
What that episode really proves to be is at the crux of this clever script, as, in parallel with Marriane’s work with quantum cosmology (stay with me) and theories of the existence of multiverses, Payne explores the parallel plains the couple’s life together could exist on. This spans everything from an immediate rebuff that prevents a relationship ever getting started, to the tragic end of their marriage.
This is demonstrated through the device of each short scene being relayed several times over, throwing down the gauntlet to the actors who must sell each scenario in a number of different ways. It’s clever, yet simply done. On one hand, you have a straightforward romantic drama; on the other, a whirlwind of philosophical and scientific theories on life, the universe and everything. And all in a little over an hour!
The replayed scene approach, at its worst, has something of a drama school improv exercise about it, as the subtle changes in inflection and body language change the meanings of the text on a dime. However, Brealey and Armstrong are simply outstanding together, confidently navigating and clarifying Payne’s multi-faceted, sometime academic script under the direction of Michael Longhurst.
There are no costume changes, no props, just Tom Scutt’s minimal set of white balloons for Lee Curren’s lighting design to bounce off to very beautiful effect – this almost seems more white cube installation than theatre set, especially when combined with composer Simon Slater’s soundscapes.
It all combines for a clean, clever, thought-provoking piece that impresses at every level.