“We have all the time we’ve always had”
When the Royal Court announced their forthcoming season with two hours notice, I was unable to get online in good time to book any of the beloved £10 Monday tickets for the shows upstairs. Generally speaking, any show at the Royal Court is worth taking a punt on, but I have been exercising a little discretion for once when it comes to the upstairs shows and so I was quite reconciled to the notion having tickets for none of them. But then of course the casting news came in and the revelation that Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall would be starring in Nick Payne’s Constellations meant I had to have a ticket. Karma was good to me though and one random day when browsing the website, limited availability showed up instead of the usual sold out and so I was able to snaffle a ticket for a Thursday matinee – just goes to show it is worth keeping an eye on theatres’ websites even when shows are reporting as sold out.
Nick Payne’s last play, also upstairs at the Royal Court, was Wanderlust and I have to admit to not caring a great deal for it (part of the reason I wasn’t too gutted at not getting tickets in the first instance) but the word of mouth for Constellations had been inescapably good and the anticipation in the room before the start was palpable. Tom Scutt’s design puts a raised platform, made of tesselated hexagons, in the centre of the auditorium with seating on all four sides, but fills the ceiling with helium-filled balloons which also escape into the passage that leads into the theatre. And on this platform, Hawkins and Spall play Marianne and Roland, a quantum cosmologist and a beekeeper respectively, whose lives intertwine and intersect in a multitude of ways.
And I mean that quite literally. Playing on the ideas of parallel universes and predetermination that Marianne is studying, scenes are played and then quickly replayed, altering subtly each time with small shifts in emphases rippling out and changing something, everything, maybe nothing. Director Michael Longhurst uses the briefest bursts of sound and flashes of light to play these shifts of universe, which makes it sound much more dramatic than it really is. It feels more like watching the same scene over again just from a different angle each time, as we see different emotions come into play, an alternative slice on the action, the endless realm of possibilities or perhaps the inevitable drive towards the same conclusion.
The play is at its best in these quick replays of short scenes: Payne’s writing possesses huge wit and pathos in the way it presents diverging accounts of conversations, confrontations and coincidental meetings. And Hawkins and Spall revel in the opportunities presented to them to play and replay: Spall’s proposal scenes are amazing, especially in the beautiful final rendition, and Hawkins’ huge openness makes her every utterance and gesture thrillingly unmissable and heartbreakingly real. Together they have great chemistry and make this worth the effort (and there will be effort involved as the run is sold out) to get a ticket however you can.