The transfer to the West End of Constellations, the latest play by Nick Payne, caps what has been, by any measure, a remarkably successful year for someone oft-referred to as one of Britain’s brightest young playwrights. With a bone-fide A-list actor cast in New York and clutching an Evening Standard Best Play Award for Constellations – a play wearing its learning on its sleeve and displaying an innate understanding of the mechanics of plotting far beyond Mr Payne’s 28 years – it can be difficult to tell whether ‘brightness’ is a reference to the current luminosity of his career or the marked intelligence that he brings to the theatre.
To write a play about string theory that looks to ‘show’ as well as ‘tell’ is a sizable task. Given the complexity of the topic and perceived tensions between the two schools of thought, it is perhaps unsurprising that there are relatively few plays about science and so, given the lack of comparators and the formidable confidence required to attempt such a mesh, it is perhaps inevitable that parallels will be made with Tom Stoppard.
It would perhaps be unfair to challenge Mr Payne to step into the shoes of one of Britain’s most eminent post-war playwrights but parallels can be discerned– at the age of 30 Mr Stoppard wrote an audaciously confident of his own in ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’. It remains one of the few Shakespeare-inspired works of art that can be held up to its inspiration and look it straight in the eye. The ease with which real scientific and philosophical rigour is interweaved with one of drama’s most potent works is frightening.
To say that Constellations does not quite match that gold standard is no disgrace because Constellations is very good on its own terms. It maintains intellectual ambition whilst driving a more humanist approach to comedy that is far more modern than either the farce of Michael Frayn or the rather mannered intellectualisms of Stoppard. The resultant characters are able to display much more in the way of warmth and manage to avoid the rather calculating artifice that affects much farce.
Constellations also operates as a superb showcase for actors – too often the temptation of a talented writer is to focus on the nature of words with less consideration given to how they might be performed. However Mr Payne’s dialogue gives a freedom for the actors to choose their own path, whilst the ‘multi-verse’ approach to the plotting allows Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall the chance to play countless variations on a theme. Indeed the addition of Ms Hawkins sometimes gives the sensation of peeking through the window of a Mike Leigh rehearsal room – watching the actors improvise their way through approach after approach in order to find truth.
The play works in symbiosis with the actors; it avoids the easy crowd-pleasers and the big emotions and forces the actors to display a verbal and physical dexterity to differentiate the different worlds. Small differences make up small changes that create ripples that reverberate through multiple futures. These variations are tragic and comic and generally based in the everyday; the opening scene at the BBQ may initially feel like a rather low-key opening but it is a reminder that quantum theory exists in the ordinary as much as the extraordinary.
Both actors handle the demands the text places on them with aplomb; Ms Hawkins perhaps draws a little more out of her character but that could be because the plot devices mainly hang on her action and Mr Spall often has to provide the tonal harmony in order to create balance.
The roles are gift for those who can handle smart dialogue; the cerebral quality is intrinsic and despite the direction of the plot, Mr Payne avoids falling into the trap of giving the actors any big scenes to showcase ‘big acting’. In doing so it would undermine the careful crafting of the characters’ personalities and it is the scenes that seem to try to force a variation rather than let it occur naturally that seem to feel false; the hint of domestic violence and the scene in sign-language gelled rather awkwardly with the rest. Even if it is the case that these universes would exist, the fracturing of character types is a little too much for the internal reality of the play to bear.
It is difficult to talk about the plot without spoiling it for those yet to see it but the direction taken meshes the warmth with a tragic poignancy that is truly affecting. There is even a wry humour evident in the fact that ultimately for all the endless variation, the bubbles that form our multiverse, no matter which is taken, there is one final singularity that cannot be avoided.
Constellations is an excellent play and audiences should enjoy the rare chance to see a genuinely smart, intelligent production playing in the West End. The Royal Court has enjoyed a number of successful transfers over the past few years and Mr Payne’s play, whilst a very different beast to the likes of Jerusalem and ENRON, more than deserves its seat among the best of them.