Review by Penny Mulvey
The latest offering from the Melbourne Theatre Company, Constellations is a riveting attempt to create a visual representation of the controversial string theory of quantum physics. A website (for science dummies like me) describes the breathtaking ambition of this theory: it attempts to provide a complete, unified, and consistent description of the fundamental structure of our universe. 1
The two-person one-act play by English playwright Nick Payne seeks to capture one of the essential aspects of string theory – that of parallel universes. Whilst we go about our daily business in this universe, the theory surmises, we are potentially doing almost the same thing (although slightly changed) in another and another and another….like a piece of string oscillating in different ways.
The idea of repeating an event over and over, such as the movie Groundhog Day, is ultimately a story of redemption. In Constellations however, this collision of two people repeated in slightly different manifestations is more about past than future.
The staple romance of girl meets boy, girl dates boy, girl and boy fight, marry, navigate illness etc, moves to a whole new plain in this play, as snippets of conversation are replayed, with a different tone, body language or projection. It brings to life what we all do regularly as we replay conversations in our head – ‘if only I had said that’; ‘why wasn’t I quick enough to respond?’; ‘next time I will remain calm’ and so on.
Alison Bell plays physicist Marianne. She meets beekeeper Roland (Leon Ford) at a barbecue and so begins the mesmerising, lightning paced encounters which could take place over a number of years or, if string theory is to be believed, could be simultaneous as the time varies across the multiple universes.
Twenty-eight-year-old Mr Payne won London’s major playwriting prize, Best Play, at the Evening Standard Awards late last year for Constellations, an extraordinary achievement for a young writer.
His willingness to grapple with such complex, paradoxical scientific theory and interpret it through the lens of human relationships relies on the abilities of the actors to project the nuanced changes, and take the audience into a space that sits outside of a continuum.
As Marianne says towards the end of the play, ‘the basic laws of physics don’t have past, present. We have all the time we have always had’.
Constellations is entertaining and thought provoking, raising enough questions to send you home to google theories of physics and wonder how it might be interpreted in another universe.
Constellations by Nick Payne, Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio, 8 February-23 March.