"You'll still have all our time."
I was disappointed leaving Constellations as I found myself not really experiencing the impact of the work after so many others were singing its praises. A tourist behind me told me that the reason the play did not work was Sally Hawkins's costumes were not sexy. "She needs a better costume,"* said this lady unprompted. Everyone is a critic. I was clearly not the only person who did not love this new Nick Payne play that transferred from the Royal Court to the West End but the "costume critic lady" and I did not see eye to eye on the reasons for why this play did not work.
The two-hander stars the aforementioned Sally Hawkins as Marianne and Rafe Spall as Roland who meet at a barbecue. Marianne is a physicist. Roland is a beekeeper. Marianne explains to Roland that there is a theory of the quantum multiverse where "every choice, every decision you've ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes." Nick Payne then goes on to show us Marianne and Roland spun through this multiverse. Repeating scenes with slightly nuanced differences, meeting, meeting again, meeting again. Spall and Hawkins have the challenging job of finding the variations in each of these incidences and making them unique and specific. Remarkably they often succeed at finding gestures and vocal intonations to make this work. Spall imbues each momentary character with great specificity. The repetition might not lead to a strong narrative thrust but Spall in particular shows great range as he reads each scene slightly differently. Hawkins is, as always, sort of out to drown you with her quirkiness. I'm dubbing her the high priestess of twee and there are probably those who love her for it and others (like me) that just wish she could dial it down a little. I struggled to see her as a physicist in any multiverse.
But there were moments in the play where I
really fell in love with a character or a scene. But in the cruel
rules of the multiverse these moments were necessarily fleeting. So as
the scenes pile up and the permutations of Marianne and Roland multiply,
and their lives twist and turn, I somehow became less engaged.
That said, the design work is remarkable (Tom Scutt on Design, Lee Curran on Lighting, David McSeveney on Sound). It has a set covered in
gorgeous balloons that are lit, glow, pulse, and shine. The
lighting and sound effects cue the audience as we pass between parallel universes. It's a smart and creative way to
what Payne's script calls for and I applaud director Michael Longhurst for it.
It's hard to complain about a production that reflects such thought and care (It tries awfully hard, but I ultimately wonder if that's what in part rubbed me the wrong way) but if in the final analysis all that work adds up to surprisingly little then I cannot hold back my disappointment. Using physics as a structural device to deliver imagined realities is clever but that's about the extent of Constellations for me: an interesting gimmick that provides layers of repetition which did not enrich the material. We get to see these two characters experience myriad possibilities of life events. Or better yet we see them experience the same life events with slightly different results. But despite the valiant efforts of Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall the characters they create exist only in a moment. The necessary transience of the play's structure makes it impossible to connect these scenes or characters. Each moment sits ostensibly isolated from the others. This structure also lends itself to a particular shallowness to the
characters. Since each episode does not build upon another, the
characters do not seem to grow--or they grow sideways in fits and starts.
If the multiverse exists and we live in an infinite number of parallel lives, I expect we cannot demand narrative satisfaction from any of those lives because they do not exist in linear form. That may be true to the physics but a loss for dramatic impact on stage.
And don't get me wrong. I can enjoy a playwright who chooses to keep the narrative or the conclusions opaque. The recent Royal Court production of The River by Jez Butterworth existed in a loosely defined fictional space and even without definitive answers I could enjoy the poetry of his writing and the mysteries of the characters. But I have no doubt Butterworth knows what he was writing and why. Whereas Payne seemed enamored of his idea but less sure about its trajectory or point. I was somewhat resistant to the charms of Payne's first play If There Is I Haven't Found It yet currently playing off-Broadway. I don't deny his work feels smarter than average but I'm not convinced it actually is as smart as it feels. Like his writing wears a fine cloak of intellectualism but just doing a little digging beneath the surface those thought provoking ideas are just a cover for the true gooey core of the work--sentimentality.
Here, the play's sincerity was lost in trying to pull far too hard at my heart-strings rather than just letting our humanity speak for itself and letting emotion flow from that.
*For the record I hated the shoes Sally Hawkins wears in the show but that had no bearing on my problems with the play.