Review: Constellations

Riona Millar 1 May 2019
Image credit: ESA/ Hubble

★★★★★

I’ve always been jealous of Nick Payne, the writer of Constellations. I once did a script-reading group at the Royal Court, and he was lauded as the youngest writer with an original script staged in their upstairs space – what I would have given to see that performance!

Tonight, though, Alistair Henfrey’s production has sated my need to see it, surpassing every conception I might have had of staging, lighting or sound.

The walls of the Corpus Playroom are this week transformed, glittering with metallic hexagons as of a beehive, with constellations scattered on doors and furniture. This is a ‘two-hander’ play – two actors, two characters, all night – and the staging reflects (and refracts) the careers of Marianne, a cosmologist (Clemi Collett) and Roland, a beekeeper (Bilal Hasna). As well as being a piece of deeply intimate drama, it is an educational one: the play is littered with scraps of knowledge about the nature of physics, the competing theories about the state of the universe, and information about bees. I don’t know how intentional it was, but when the two stools that make up the set are stacked on top of one another, sparkling with constellations, they look like a hive.

Time in the play is, as is the case in physics, non-linear – we are presented with intersecting timelines, coexisting simultaneously, marked clearly and distinctly with Aidan Tulloch’s electrically eerie compositions. On a broad scale, the play moves in the chronological order of a relationship between its two characters, moving through infidelities, reunions, and varyingly successful proposals, to a shared difficulty and grief. It is a fairly standard progression – until it is not.

Marianne explains to Roland that, if we hold multiverse theory to be correct, then every possible decision we could make produces another universe where that option is the one taken. Thus we see these multiplicities play out, scenes repeated with very slight changes offering a completely different outcome in each scenario. These slightly altered repeats are where Collett and Hasna really shine, their dynamic vastly changed by every minor detail, unaltered lines repeated with the same cadences, pauses taking up the same space. Their acting is what really demonstrates the change a minor detail can make.

The play offers us the message that no matter the possible choices we make, there is ultimately only one outcome that awaits us all – but it is not a hopeless play, even with moments interspersed from early on of the play’s final scene, whose emotional impact is strongest seen in full, partly because of our familiarity that has grown from the moments that appear in between all the possible realities. Instead Marianne reassures Roland – and us – that there is no set period of time allotted to us. Again, time is not linear: our pasts and presents and futures coexist, just as they do in the play; in the eyes of physics, the idea of having ‘more time’ with someone is irrelevant. This is comforting in ways I can’t quite explain.

It is a really beautiful piece of theatre – Henfrey’s direction lifts it from the script and plays with it delicately, weaving an intimacy and closeness that sits perfectly in the confines of the Corpus Playroom. It is hard, at the end of the play, to step outside and find we are no longer surrounded by stars.