“At any given moment, several outcomes can co-exist simultaneously”
Due to its often fleeting nature, it is a real luxury to be able to properly revisit a show at the theatre. Not just to return to a play during the same run but to experience the same production anew in a different environment, and for those who were able to see Nick Payne’s sparkling new play Constellations upstairs at the Royal Court earlier this year, that opportunity now presents itself as it takes up residence at the Duke of York’s, with its original stellar cast of Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall, to complete the Sloane Square venue’s highly successful season of transfers.
On paper, it is an intriguing if a little opaque prospect: Payne’s play takes scientific principles like quantum multiverse theory and uses them to explore the infinite possibilities of one relationship. In reality though, it is a highly moving account of the connection between beekeeper Roland and scientist Marianne, exploring different permutations and possible outcomes of their lives as scenes repeat themselves from different angles, different viewpoints, sending their relationship down a different path each time, even as they seem to be drawn to the same inescapable conclusion. (My original review of the show can be found here and to avoid repeating myself too much and to be a bit different from a regular review, this piece of writing will focus mainly on my experience as someone revisiting the show).
Michael Longhurst’s production has been reconfigured for the new space, moving from the intimate in-the-round arrangement to the grander proscenium arch of the Duke of York’s. The helium-filled balloons of Tom Scutt’s design remain in their powerful simplicity but it is highly impressive how both Spall and Hawkins have amplified their performances without losing any of the subtlety. So the experience from row M of the stalls compared really quite well to having the actors mere feet from our faces, different for sure but in a good way and indeed it allows for a more complete worldview of this universe, and then the next, and then the next.
It unquestionably remains impeccably acted. Spall’s blokish affability captures a gorgeous sense of modern metropolitan masculinity and Hawkins’ adorably dorky (adorkable?) persona holds the heart ever so tenderly, allowing her to play the more wrenching scenes with a devastating precision. With each synaptic flash of Lee Curran’s lighting, they flick between entire worlds of emotion: so a chance meeting is variously treated with cautious surprise, sexually charged anticipation or arch suspicion; a proposal is delivered with hesitant charm, with nervous energy, with seductive confidence. What struck me most though was how technically accomplished both performances are, in winding through the realm of seemingly endless options. The free-flowing energy that both bring to bear made it feel like they were practically riffing, improvising even when I first saw the show, but it soon became apparent how perfectly calibrated and precise it all is – a thrilling masterclass in intimately epic acting.
And knowing what was coming made it ultimately all the more moving for me on second viewing. I shed a tear or three back in January, but this time round something deeply profound stirred in me and I spent a good 30 minutes not even bothering to stem the tears streaming down my face and I couldn’t even look at my companion at the end for fear of bawling. Oddly enough, one of the few textual changes that I noticed was one of the things that moved me most last time, a stutteringly repeated phrase from Marianne poignantly threaded throughout the play, which Payne appears to have removed and which felt like a genuine shame as it provided a slightly stronger connective strand to hold onto in the labyrinth of shifting possibility.
Exciting, exhilarating, enthralling, engaging. Or stimulating, stirring, searing, spellbinding. Whichever way you look at it, this piece of intricately clever new writing is proof positive that no matter which universe we end up in, it will be a poorer place if theatre like this isn’t an integral part of it.