As dramatic settings go, the multiverse is a damn sight more ambitious than most. Over the course of its 65 minutes, Nick Payne’s Constellations zaps between parallel universes to tell the stories of Roland and Marianne’s relationship. Or perhaps the story of Roland and Marianne’s relationships.
Though it seems time-space-continuum corkscrew of a play, Constellations is, at heart, a rather simply love story fused with a game of consequences. Boy meets girl. Boy rejects girl/dates girl. They break up when boy/girl cheats. Meeting again, they’ve moved on/get back together. A good old fashioned postmodern rom-com, you see?
Rom-coms have their dramatic tension in the question, ‘Will they or won’t they?’ Ultimately, we know that yes, in the end, they will, inevitably, live happily ever after, but the game is in the obstacles that get in the way. Payne’s multiverse allows the possibility for both at the same time. He can take us down dead ends, missed opportunities and vicious break ups, safe in the knowledge that, in another universe, everything is going swimmingly.
Constellations starts at a soggy barbecue, when Marianne, a quantum physicist rolls out an inane chat up line. It doesn’t work. Undeterred, she tries again at another rainy barbecue. While we’re still unsure of his rules, Payne dupes us into thinking that it’s something she says to all the boys – that the men she approaches, played by Rafe Spall, are all different. In fact, they’re all different Rolands at the same barbecue in different patches of the multiverse. One’s married, another too newly single. This one’s too hot, that one too cold until one proves just right.
Going forwards, we see multiple versions of various pivotal moments in their relationship – from first dates through to proposals and beyond. In its constant trial and error, the way it almost erases drafts as it goes, Constellations has echoes of Caryl Churchill’s Heart’s Desire (one half of Blue Kettle).
It’s a clever structure, but one that’s content to be clever rather than explore the possibilities it opens up. Payne never provides a reason for showing us these particular variations as opposed to any other, meaning the relationship’s various courses have a trace of arbitrariness. Compare Alan Acykbourn’s Intimate Exchanges, a play that traces the fallout from a single shift, and you begin to see the way that alternatives need to rub against one another.
Nonetheless, form and content intermingle beautifully to illustrate the implications of quantum physics on free will. Payne isn’t conclusively determinist. His characters still act freely, but their freedom is more limited than either would like to believe. Everything here is contingent: every decision, responsive; every happy ending as sweet and brittle as honeycomb.
In this, language becomes central. Even something as unthinking as word selection, which brings the most minute shift of meaning, can, like the butterfly flapping earthquakes into being, have a significant impact. Not for nothing does Marianne lose the ability to find the right word towards the end. Payne also suggests that we are, to some extent, pre-destined; programmed to suffer certain illnesses or, like the ’umble ‘oney bee, to wind up with the same partner whatever happens.
With this, the present moment becomes central and it’s no accident that Payne ends with a final reprise in which Marianne and Roland meet for the first time after breaking up. Here, they have a past and they seem to have a potential future; the moment is a perfect balance of the known and the unknown. In that stands for all the rest: the past feeds into the present, which will, in turn shape the future. In this way, Payne presents a well-crafted illustration of soft-determinism, which allows for the existence of both free will and determined outcomes.
There’s a neat sideline on science. The more we understand, the more control we gain, but – paradoxically – the less in control we feel. The closer to God we become, the more we realise our own insignificance, that, as one Marianne puts it, we’re nothing but ‘particles governed by a series of very particular laws being knocked the fuck around all over the place’.
Emotionally supple and engaging throughout, Michael Longhurst’s production goes a long way to covering the text’s shortcomings. At its heart are two blissfully easy performances from Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins. Spall is tender, gangly and emotionally bunged up as Roland, while Hawkins is, by her very nature, the perfect rom-com actress. She is just as awkward as we all feel, but still attractive and likeable to the end. Tom Scutt’s elegant design – a honeycomb floor with a cluster of white balloons above – is full of resonance, suggesting everything from thunderclouds to stars, molecules to brain matter, celebrations to dreams.
Smart and delicate, Constellations ultimately falls short of its considerable ambition. It reaches for the stars and, though heavenly, doesn’t quite get there.