Revisiting Constellations: Do stars lose their sparkle?

Constellations – Trafalgar Studios, until 01 August 2015 (tickets)

It is hard to overstate what a runaway success Nick Payne’s Constellations has been. Since it premiered at the Royal Court in January 2012, it has enjoyed a West End run, a Broadway run (with no less a pairing than Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson), a national tour, won Best Play in the Evening Standard Awards and was nominated for three Tony Awards.

In terms of new British drama, the only recent works that match its transatlantic critical and public acclaim are Peter Morgan’s The Audience (whichConstellations received a significant boost from its subject matter and star-led casting) and Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem (truly brilliant but now almost 5 years old). There may be others but you get the point, Mr Payne can be placed among a select band of playwrights to have written a 21st century play that will be mentioned when we reflect back on this period in the years to come.

There is a risk that re-watching a play leads to a breaking of the spell, a dissipation of the magic that you allowed to be cast first time around when everything was fresh, exciting and new. The peril may have been even greater with Constellations, which is so delicately constructed that the fear is, if one looks closely enough, the unsightly cogs that keep the intertwined narrative threads running smoothly without snagging and fraying will become all too visible.

Yet watching Constellations for a second time is a rewarding experience. For a play that is a rich and considered portrait of love, it is perhaps appropriate that experiences of the first time exist as a blur; the brain is left to furiously piece together a flood of memories and fragmented emotions. You leave the auditorium exhilarated but exhausted, mental faculties taken through a mangle to leave you physically strung out.

Second time around everything can appear that little bit slower. The big surprises may have gone but it is an opportunity to luxuriate in everything you missed out on first time round. With the benefit of knowing what happens and how it all pieces together, the second time allows you to observe the process as much as watch the play.

It is a chance to explore and to probe. Was it just a flash in the pan or is there something longer lasting? Were we all sucked in by a snake-oil salesman’s polish or is there an intellectual depth that rewards repeat experiences?

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We came hoping for a new arcadia and instead ended up with Welwyn Garden City.

The Hard Problem – Dorfman Space @ National Theatre, until 27 May 2015 (Tickets)

This production will be broadcast to cinemas on 16 Aprilthe_hard_problem398.jpg

The ‘hard problem’of the title refers to ‘consciousness’; a concept under assault from a battalion of neuroscientists laying claim to greater and greater certainty in their understanding of brain functionality as something that can be deconstructed to the micro-level of synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters. As neuroscience is in the ascendancy we are left with awkward questions over whether humans are left increasingly shackled by the tyranny of genetic determinism? Where does our freedom of thought – our freedom to act in ways contrary to the principles of evolutionary science – fit into the equation? In essence does the philosophical ‘mind’, as opposed to the functional ‘brain’, exist?

These are fascinating questions and truly weighty topics. It is the sort of subject we have come to expect from Tom Stoppard, who has demonstrated his formidable intelligence on countless occasions over the last forty years and in so doing has contributed some of Britain’s finest plays of the post-war era. This includes two genuine classics in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Arcadia and many others that found audacious approaches to create unabashedly literate drama enthused with a wit that refused to bow to the lowest common denominator.

Stoppard is 77 years old and it is his first new play for nine years. So perhaps the hard problem for the audience is reconciling itself to the idea that the play – quite possibly his last – is a bit of a dud. Critical reactions have been mixed and supported by an undercurrent of good will but, on reflection, can anyone seriously challenge the view that this is but a pale imitation of what has come before?

The play suffers primarily from a lack of drama. Things happen, time passes, the plot resorts to rather clichéd contrivances and one comes away finding it very difficult to care about any of it.

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