One thing that ran constantly through my mind while watching the Donmar Warehouse’s production of Constellations by Nick Payne was that it must be an extremely difficult piece for the actors to learn; it’s a play which features a multitude of possibilities and reversals and repetitions are rife. The narrative constantly rewinds so that the dialogue plays out and then is replayed with subtle variations. So, at the opening when Marianne and Roland, a physicist and a bee keeper, meet at a barbecue and get chatting, sometimes events develop and sometimes they don’t. Depending on circumstances he is either married, has just come out of a relationship and is not looking to start another or has no attachments that he needs to worry about. All these possibilities are shown in rapid succession. Later Marianne is definitely or maybe having an affair … or not… and Roland displays various forms of response to the news. In yet another section both have no words with which to communicate and resort to sign language. Just when you think you’re getting the measure of it, this play intriguingly shifts gear and Payne takes the audience down an entirely different path.
For although at heart this is a piece about a relationship, it also concerns the infinite possibilities which the universe might throw at us and demonstrates how choices and reactions are key to development and change. And this production takes things one stage further by allowing us to see, or at least choose from, four quite different couples performing the two roles. I opted for the elder statespersons in the form of Zoë Wanamaker and Peter Capaldi who bring authority and gravitas to their roles though they equally have a good deal of fun with what they are doing. They are particularly good in the later scenes when time starts to run away with them and there’s a real sense of urgency as they come up against the inevitable; while there may be many different pathways through life they all, eventually, lead to the same outcome.
Although I didn’t watch any of the other three versions all the way through, I did dip in and out of them just to get a feel for how they played out. Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah are probably nearest to the ages intended in the original; Atim particularly seems to give a quite fiery interpretation. Russell Tovey and Omari Douglas play the piece from a gay perspective – in the extracts I saw I felt the latter could have done with dialling down the camp approach somewhat but without seeing the entire performance that perhaps may not be a fair comment. If I had been opting for a second full version I would have gone for Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O’Dowd who bring yet another dynamic to proceedings. In this play which is already about parallel universes it is a very clever production conceit to take things one stage further and have it played by four different sets of actors.
The play is only about 70 minutes long but packs an awful lot into a short space, driven by some scintillating direction from the Donmar’s Michael Longhurst who ensures that the constant repetitions never become tedious. Tom Scutt’s great set is free of everyday distractions such as furniture and props. Rather the balloon and streamer dominated space seems to hint at the endless reaches of the universe/multiverse itself and this is reinforced by both the lighting and soundscapes (Lee Curran and David McSeveney respectively). A further pleasing touch comes from Simon Slater’s haunting theme music.
There’s a real sense of the experimental about this play and production and it serves to prove that great writing can be interpreted and reinterpreted in any number of ways. With it’s constantly shifting interplay of decisions and repercussions, it will no doubt touch a chord with many viewers. Especially as it comes at the end of a period in which we have seen various possibilities close down on us and our time on this planet start to slip away. And, unlike Marianne and Roland, we only get one go at it.