CONSTELLATIONS, Sydney Theatre Company at Wharf 1, 29 July-2 September 2023. Photography by Prudence Upton
The blurb for the STC’s production of Nick Payne’s Constellations asks: “What if you could relive the most important moments in your life, over and over, to see how things could have turned out differently?”
In a funny way the question has already been answered for the Brit playwright and his two-hander tragicomedy. How so? Constellations was a big hit on its first outing in 2012 at the Royal Court. It won the Evening Standard Award for Best Play as well as a major design award. It transferred to the West End and went on to Broadway.
Fast forward to 2021 and it’s restaged again in London, this time with four pairs of actors playing it turn and turn about. Another smash hit, this time winning the Olivier Award for best play (revival) as well as charming audiences all over again.
Same same but different. As it is for Marianne (Catherine Văn-Davies) and Roland (Johnny Carr) as they meet and share a moment at a barbecue. Or do they? Is that how it happened, or did they go in another direction? And so their meeting/meet cute is replayed until the moment is bumped on to the next – or another version of the next.
Marianne is a quantum physicist, which explains a lot, and Roland is a beekeeper, which explains even more, as both bees and string theory have profound effects on our world. And Marianne explains to Roland, “Every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.”
Perhaps to remind us of this possibility, the two are marooned on a dark circular stage as white light circles above and below them. Is it a macrocosmic Oreo cookie or the Large Hadron Collider? Who knows? Does it matter? Isabel Hudson’s set design, coupled with Benjamin Brockman’s lighting, are beautiful to look at. The “ceiling” effect, with central bright diffused white light, recalls the scene from Close Encounters when the aliens descend from a circle of illumination – except with massed inverted planting of Baby’s Breath to take the edge off the spaceship look. Either way, it’s both Kubrick and Spielberg and ravishing to look at.
You might intuit that the stage is potentially as distracting as the largest and highest-energy particle collider was when first unveiled to a boggled world in 2008. Just as well then that the performances of Carr and Văn-Davies are even more powerful and hold the attention throughout.
Văn-Davies is on a ripping ride of her own at the moment, having come directly from an exquisitely dynamic performance as the often overlooked younger sister in A Streetcar Named Desire (RedLine at the Old Fitz). Here, for Constellations, she is an initially exuberant presence, full of comedic brio, then as the particles of story collide and hurtle in different directions, she also becomes fragments – of hope, chutzpah, despair, jubilation, laughter and tears and infinite calibrations in between. It’s a mesmerising performance.
And it would be lesser without Carr’s presence in the “straight man” role. In many ways Roland is a thankless task – as the reflector of Marianne’s emotional dazzle – yet his quietly hopeful, visibly loving, tangibly desperate struggles to keep up with Marianne’s journey are not only touching but also anchor what might otherwise be an esoteric leap too far. Carr is the perfect foil for his partner.
For 80 absorbing minutes, director Ian Michael keeps all the particles in the air and whirling with rarely a drop in pace or temperature. Composer and sound designer James Brown adds an aural layer that makes a similar contribution. Whether or not Marianne is dying or has died becomes yet another mystery of the universe(s) as the duo lives and relives what has or has yet to happen. At the same time, although Marianne says to Roland that “We have all the time we’ve always had,” it feels obvious that the fate of bees and honey has become more important to us, since 2012, than quantum physics and string theory – or perhaps they’re one and the same in the face of human connection and love. Who knows.
Constellations is a spellbinding, non-stop zoom through time and space and romance. Recommended.