According to the multiverse theory, there are parallel universes in which our world isn’t going through a pandemic, or where it’s already happened, or where it’s still to come. In this universe, and likely as a result of that pandemic, Nick Payne’s Constellations, which first ran at The Royal Court in 2012, followed by a West End and Broadway transfer, now returns to the West End and The Vaudeville Theatre.
If you’re only knowledge of String Theory comes from the sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, then you’re probably not alone. Constellations is rooted in quantum mechanics, but while it’s physics that inspired the play, it’s the chemistry between a scientist and a bee-keeper that gives us our warm-hearted narrative.
In Payne’s hauntingly beautiful two-hander, Marianne and Roland meet at a Barbeque and start a relationship. Or maybe they don’t. Perhaps that relationship works out, or perhaps it doesn’t. Much like Marianne’s field of study, this narrative isn’t linear. Each scene is replayed multiple times, exploring the different outcomes that each decision (or non-decision) could lead to.
Given the infinite scenarios that could emerge from Marianne and Roland’s interactions, you wouldn’t need to be Professor Hawking (or even Sheldon Cooper) to wonder that if in these parallel universes, Marianne and Roland were entirely different in appearance, age, gender or ethnicity. And here is the master stroke for this particular run of Constellations, there are four different casts who will rotate, each taking their turn at playing the couple.
The first two pairings take the first half of the run. Sheila Atim is paired with Ivanno Jeremiah, while in separate performances, Zoë Wanamaker is with Peter Capaldi. The second pairing are clearly older, and while it makes some of the lines sound a little odd, in their parallel existence it might be perfectly normal.
Despite using the same script, these two versions of Constellations feel like completely different plays. Wanamaker and Capaldi’s is the more polished performance, with slightly better timing between the lines. But Atim and Jeremiah’s feels much more natural, their conversational tone giving the play greater authenticity, and allowing the comedy aspect to shine through, it’s also in this version that the genius of Payne’s writing is highlighted.
Both versions are superbly directed by Michael Longhurst, yet there are clear differences in some of the scenes, where it feels like the actors have been able to take control. Ivanno Jeremiah’s interpretation of the proposal scene gives it greater depth, while Wanamaker puts a different lens on the difficult later scenes.
Tom Scutt’s canopy of white balloons hangs over the stage, like the atoms that are the building blocks of life, or the unimaginable number of alternative worlds that could exist. Combined with Lee Curran’s lighting design, it very effectively separates the multiple timelines, while remaining a visually appealing staging.
Theatre may be returning gradually, as opposed to the big bang we had all been hoping for, but the current advantages of two-handers means a welcome return for Nick Payne’s acclaimed work. Not only that, but audiences have the opportunity to experience multiple versions of the same play, and no matter which cast of Constellations they see, it’s a theatrical experience that is out of this world.