I missed Nick Payne's play Constellations during its 2012 run at the Royal Court and I was even more disappointed to just miss its Broadway incarnation with Jake Gyllenhaal and the always excellent Ruth Wilson this spring. I like going to the theatre but I'm never very good at keeping on top of what is on, so I was pleased that I scanned the theatre section of last week's Time Out and noticed that Constellations was back for a limited run at the Trafalgar Studios and even happier that I managed to score some cheap tickets for the Saturday matinee.
Constellations tells the story—or, rather, stories—of Marianne (Louise Brealey), an astrophysicist, and Roland (Joe Armstrong), a bee-keeper, who meet at a barbecue. Marianne tells a weird anecdote about elbow licking, but Roland isn't impressed and they don't click. But then they meet at a barbecue and they do click. Above the stark black stage hang dozens of white balloons and every few minutes, different balloons light up and we see a different version of the same scene. The story moves along, sometimes incrementally and sometimes with long time-jumps, and we start to see different versions of their relationship that could have happened.
As in any relationship (or any possible version of any relationship), sometimes things go well, and other times, sad things happen. Intermittently, we also get snapshots from a time much further in the future. We see the same scene several times, but each time, there is slightly more dialogue and slightly more context, which allow us to gradually piece together what is happening.
It is a beautiful play, only 70 minutes long but extremely intense. It's often sad and moving, but it's also funny in places, particularly in some of the variations early on in the relationship. "I fucking love honey," one Marianne tells one Roland; it's her delivery that's key. Constellations is also very philosophical, and Marianne's job as a physicist allows her to introduce questions of time and of infinite possible worlds. She talks about "everything you have ever and never done," and then later tells Roland: "We still have all the time we've ever had."
Marianne gets the best lines and she is, perhaps, the more interesting character, but Roland makes a great foil. The chemistry between Brealey and Armstrong is fantastic and essential for such a production to work. In some ways, the play reminded me of Patrick Marber's Closer; in particular, the scenes when Marianne and Roland argue made me think of the devastating break-up between Larry and Anna (portrayed wonderfully on-screen by Clive Owen and Julia Roberts). The work with which I drew most connections, though, was Laura Barnett's novel The Versions of Us, which I read recently. Both look at all of the ways characters and relationships could have developed—and maybe have even developed in other possible worlds—and highlight questions of fate, love and what forever really means.
I mentioned the minimalist set design further up, but the play is also visually impressive. It was a nice touch to have the black floor printed with a hexagon grid, which seemed to be symbolic of Roland's beekeeping work (which also proves relevant to the story), whereas the white flashing balloons represented, to me, the infinite universe that Marianne studies.
By the end of Constellations, I was feeling emotionally exhausted but curious. If you're in the mood for a beautiful and thought-provoking play about love, life and even theoretical physics, then do try to get tickets. Unfortunately, this run ends on 1st August, so you'll need to act pretty swiftly.