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 (which 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?
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.
One may think that returning to the blog after a long absence would be like finding yourself wrapped in the enthusiastic embrace from an old friend – comforting if not a little suffocating – but the reality is closer to the disquieting unease felt when faced with a locked door in an empty house. There is nothing behind it clearly – the world of ghosts and gremlins and ghouls is one that gives little concern – but subconscious tremors still create a paralysis that ripple across the keyboard and threaten the ability to make words out of thought and action.
A play is seen, an idea is sprung and an excuse is given – continuing in an ever more vicious cycle of procrastination and self-doubt until the author is left in a pitiful state, unable to even manage a pithy 140 character tweet to express dissatisfaction at another evening of psychological toss thrown up by the Barbican’s ever growing adventures into the realms of European pretension (currently standing at four plays in under 10 months shared between a German Australian, a French Strindberg, a Polish Vampire and a Spanish Shakespeare).
Luckily the success and dynamism of others have had a revitalising effect. Vicariously experiencing someone being nominated for the Evening Standard Best Play award, others nominated for a short film at the Milano Film Festival, a graphics showcase and another’s photo portfolio. They have rammed home the point that the world doesn’t slow down even if a blogger does.
And so Civilian Theatre returns…