There is a theory in quantum physics that there are an infinite number of universes: everything that possibly can happen, happens somewhere, and with every choice you take, there are a thousand other worlds where you chose differently. Nick Payne’s new play Constellations takes this theory and applies it to a relationship between a couple, Marianne and Roland: that man you chat up may be married, that one not: you might cheat, or he might; you might meet up as lovers, you might meet up as friends; you might flourish, you might get sick – here we see the myriad possibilities played out in a series of rapid fire exchanges, as a dozen slightly different Rolands and Mariannes live out their affair.
It is an incredibly clever idea, superbly executed. Designer Tom Scutt may have filled the theatre with white balloons – a universe of stars – but the production is staged in the round on a bare black stage, giving the actors nowhere to hide and no props to hide behind, and they both rise ably to the challenge. I’ve never been a particular fan of either Sally Hawkins or Rafe Spall, both of whom often display a tendency to go over the top in their screen performances, but this is not the case at all in director Michael Longhurst’s production. Hawkins’ tiny birdlike frame vibrates with nervous energy, and she is utterly convincing, from her slightly manic opening salvo, through to emotional detachment and ultimately disintegration. This plays well against Spall’s masculine solidity and a sexuality that can seem almost sly: he is a man whose character is transformed by the tilt of a smile, easily slipping from one role to another.
This is a dance played out in slivers of time, on the edge of moments: we see how each decision affects the next, how the most subtle of nuances can dramatically alter a scene, a life, a future. Both actors effortlessly differentiate between each different ‘role’ – for all its breakneck pace, you are never confused as to what is going on, as they switch in an instant from one world to another, often even repeating the same lines, just in a slightly – but importantly – different way. The piece is a master class in acting and clever writing – but, problematically, it sometimes feels as if that’s all that’s going on here. So quickly are we taken through all the variants of a relationship, it’s too easy to lose our footing as an audience – and who, after all, are we holding onto? With so many progressions played out before our eyes, it’s hard to care too much about any of them – no matter how affecting the performances – and the brief running time didn’t give us enough of a chance to invest in their multiple fates.
As someone who feels that pretty much every play could be improved by lopping 20 minutes off the running time, even I felt that the story could have done with fleshing out; that these glimpses of a life – of multiple lives – weren’t enough to sustain. In the end, the performances may be dazzling, but you never get to know much about these people: it is this that prevents Constellations from being a truly stellar work.