‘Constellations’ at the Royal Court

I like efficiency in a play; say something interesting, use good actors in it, don’t mess about with over elaborate staging, do it in under an hour and a half with no wasting time with an interval, and I’ll usually leave the theatre very happy.

So ‘Constellations’, a new play by Nick Payne, performed by Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall at the tiny upstairs theatre at the Royal Court, was the perfect night out.  It’s a small romantic tale of the relationship between a woman who works in quantum cosmology, and an everyman who keeps bees, but it takes the idea that, between the theory of relativity and that of quantum mechanics, exists the possibility that we could be in a place where at any given moment several different outcomes might co-exist.  It is experimenting with this idea that creates the structure of the play.

Marianne and Roland meet at a barbecue.  He is either married, or just coming out of a relationship or single; they may or may not go back to her place, where subsequent events may go well or badly; they may stay together or break apart and might meet again at a ballroom dancing class…… each small scene is replayed, with either slightly different words, or simply using a different tone of voice.

It might look like a demonstration of the various ways two skilled actors can play any given scene, a simple showing off trick.  But it didn’t, because there was a real emotional heart to it, real feelings of awkwardness, humour, charm, and pain as the play reaches its conclusion.  Because while it is an examination of free will and the choices made along the way throughout life, there is the one certainty of death, which may come in an unexpected way, and only our attitude towards it can change it.

Performed on a black stage in the centre of the room, the actors moved around each other like boxers, changing position between each round, as each scene built layer upon layer of the multitude of possibilities which might result from two people meeting at a party.

I’d been invited to go to the show by a friend and hadn’t read anything about it in advance, so didn’t have any expectations from it.  But from the moment we arrived at the top of the long climb up the stairs into the lobby area, festooned with white balloons and dangling threads, through to the simple black room with hundreds more balloons hung from the ceiling, to the two lovely performances, Sally Hawkins, bright and brittle and Rafe Spall, steadfastly ordinary and occasionally bemused, I was engaged and entertained.

I left brimming with questions and what ifs, and wondering at how on earth Sally Hawkins remembered which bit of the play she was in each time she repeated the words of one of the key repeating scenes.

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