Reviews Published 6 July 2021

Review: Constellations at Vaudeville Theatre

“Repeat, but always with a difference”: Mert Dilek writes a variation-filled response to Nick Payne’s play.

Mert Dilek

Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah. Design: Tom Scutt. Lighting design: Lee Curran. Photo: Marc Brenner

An indented rule, the playtext for Nick Payne’s Constellations tells us, indicates a change in universe.

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An indented rule, according to Constellations, indicates a change in universe. First produced at the Royal Court Theatre in 2012, Nick Payne’s play travels across 46 different universes in 75 minutes, charting some of the paths a relationship takes (or doesn’t take).

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An indented rule, for Nick Payne, indicates a shift in universe. His 2012 play Constellations, first produced at the Royal Court Theatre, hops across 46 different universes, presenting slivers from a relationship’s infinite variety in 50 pithy scenes. Marianne, a quantum cosmologist, and Roland, a beekeeper, meet at a barbecue, go on a date, move in together, break up, reunite, and confront death. Or they don’t.

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Marianne, who loves honey, and Roland, who finds quantum mechanics “sexy” but obscure, fall in love, then out of it, and then back in—or they don’t. In the play’s original production, they were performed by Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall. When it was remounted on Broadway in 2014, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson took over the characters. The UK tour in 2015 featured Joe Armstrong and Louise Brealey.

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What has now opened at the Vaudeville Theatre is not, properly speaking, Constellations. It is, according to all the marketing materials, Michael Longhurst’s “Royal Court Theatre Production of Constellations.” It is a revival in which the production’s aesthetics have remained largely intact. Once again, Tom Scutt’s enchanting design situates Payne’s multiverse on a honeycomb-patterned wooden floor, surrounded by dozens of balloons of different sizes. Each balloon stands for a choice, a story, a might-have-been. Lee Curran’s spasmodic lights and David McSeveney’s sharp-shock sounds efficiently theatricalize Payne’s “indented rule,” marking the points at which we abruptly change universes. Longhurst’s direction is agile, playful, assured. Payne’s play appears to have found itself in familiar hands.

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Michael Longhurst revives his original staging of the play at the Vaudeville Theatre, this time as a Donmar production . Except that this is much more than a revival. Its most striking gesture is to use the conditions of its revised casting to exploit and expand the dynamics of Payne’s mighty dramaturgy. We now have four pairs of Mariannes and Rolands, who rotate through the same (?) production, each practically increasing the range of options open to the characters through their choices in performance.

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We now have four pairs of Mariannes and Rolands, who rotate through the same (?) production. They make up a diverse reimagining of the characters: a young Black couple, an interracial gay couple, and two white couples—one in their forties and the other relatively older. Each pair is a new possibility with its own forking paths. In Sheila Atim and Ivaano Jeremiah’s rendering, the variations on the relationship are duly imbued with gradations of youthful awkwardness and cheer. Atim’s Marianne gracefully combines the forthright and the whimsical, and Jeremiah portrays a coherently dynamic, sympathetic Roland. There is a natural ease, a magnetic effortlessness, to both their performances. As a result, the rapid changes in the outcomes of their encounters feel even more organic.

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Each pair is a new possibility with its own forking and re-forking paths. In Zoë Wanamaker and Peter Capaldi’s rendering, the variations on the relationship are permeated by a sense of elderly confidence, of affable coolness. Wanamaker’s Marianne gracefully combines the bemused and the cheeky, and Capaldi’s Roland sustains his charisma with gentlemanly bravado. And yet, there remains something off about this pair, a degree of mismatch between the words coming out of their mouths and the poise they bring to their performances. On the surface, Marianne and Roland’s multiple narratives should—and do—make sense even when the characters are envisioned as in their sixties or seventies. But there is something about their speech, the thermodynamics of their dialogue, that turns out to ground these characters in a younger generation. Both Wanamaker and Capaldi, as a result, tend to appear as though they were playing much younger characters.

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Both Capaldi and Wanamaker, as a result, tend to appear as though they were playing characters frequently pretending to be younger than they actually are.

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Each couple is a new possibility with its own range of paths, though the script is obviously always the same. It remains to be seen which interpretive paths will be trodden, or at least raised to view, by the pairing of Omari Douglas with Russell Tovey, and of Anna Maxwell Martin with Chris O’Dowd.

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Every play builds and occupies a world of its own. But what Constellations builds—or at least what this Constellations has built so far—is neither a world nor a universe, but a plurality of multiverses. If each pair of Mariannes and Rolands creates and inhabits its own multiverse, then this whole theatrical enterprise—a mega-production spanning stagings at the Royal Court, at the Duke of York’s, on Broadway, on tour, and now at the Vaudeville—is nothing if not a conglomerate of multiverses that scales up and double-charges the play’s internal multiplicities.

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Every play builds and occupies a world of its own. To watch Constellations is in some sense to witness the world-building capacity of theatrical acting at work, to encounter what performance can do to and with words on the page. The play’s repetition-with-variation model exerts itself both on the level of language and in what it demands of its actors. As both pairs of actors demonstrate fiercely, the ultimate impact of two very similar scenes sometimes depends largely on differences of emphasis, posture, or blocking.

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To watch Constellations is in some sense to be in a rehearsal room—to remember that to stage something is always to make a series of choices.

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To watch Constellations is in some ways to be in a writer’s mind—to remember that to write something is always to commit to a series of choices.

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To experience these two stagings of Constellations on the same day is to become aware of the play’s astounding richness and Longhurst’s impressive grip on it. It is to witness how even the smallest choice—a smile, a shrug, a glance—truly makes a difference. But it is also to be lulled by those proliferating differences, to have your modes of attention put through a weirdly demanding exercise.

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Isn’t this how all theatre works? Do this, try that. Change it here, tweak it there. Repeat, but with a difference.

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Isn’t this how all criticism works? Do that, try this. Change it there, tweak it here. Do it again, but differently. To write a review, whether this one or any other, is to have your modes of attention put through a weirdly demanding exercise.

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Isn’t this how all revivals work? Repeat, but always, necessarily, with a difference.

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Repeat, but always with a difference. In fact, this could have gone in 28 different ways. The eight actors could have been mixed and matched. Perhaps there is a universe in which Atim’s Marianne asks Capaldi’s Roland whether he knows why it’s impossible to lick the tips of your elbows.

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Perhaps there is a universe in which Jeremiah’s Roland tells Wanamaker’s Marianne that he wants to spend the night.

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Repeat, but always with a difference. In fact, with the 14 actors of what is called “the Royal Court Theatre production of Constellations,” this could have gone in 91 different ways. Perhaps it already does. Perhaps there is a universe in which Sally Hawkins’s Marianne tells Chris O’Dowd’s Roland that time is irrelevant at the level of atoms and molecules.

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Perhaps there is a universe in which a single production has been running—and growing—for a decade, even when the stage was empty. For it is only in theatre that you can go on living and living and living.

Constellations is on at Vaudeville Theatre until 12th September. More info and tickets here.

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Mert Dilek is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Constellations at Vaudeville Theatre Show Info


Directed by Michael Longhurst

Written by Nick Payne

Cast includes Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah; Zoë Wanamaker and Peter Capaldi

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