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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Memories are made of this

Incognito – The Bush Theatre, booking until 21 June 2014

What separates humans from the rest of the animal world? Whilst we have many evolutionary advantages it is surely the way our brain evolved its extraordinary capacity to retain and recall information to such a complex degree that makes human fundamentally different from other animals.

Genetically it may be our DNA that determines that we are biologically human but is it not our memories that are essential in creating personality – in essence what turns a ‘human’ into a ‘person’. Without memories we can be biologically human and be expected to treated as such, but if we lose all sense of our memory and the associated ability to make the connections to identify with our past, can we still be thought of as the same person as we were before?

This argument is a modern conception of the Humean idea of the self. We are made up of instances, of individual perceptions, and it is the continuous linkage that creates the self. Without this ability to tap into these Incognito 2experiences, to recall them, do we retain the same self?

Part of the problem with answering these questions is that, compared to our other organs, we know laughably little about the brain and how it functions. Neurologists may claim, with assured prognoses, that image or area tells us that a person is a serial killer or understands a joke, but this is all inference. We do not know how it works in practice, we cannot say with certainty what is in a brain that makes one person a genius and another a fool.

This is the starting point for Nick Payne’s latest play, Incognito. Payne takes the remarkable story of Einstein’s brain and uses it to frame a complex, demanding but ultimately satisfying investigation into the fragility of humans, both as physical objects and emotional beings.

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Clarity of thought amidst the blurred lines

Blurred Lines – The Shed, National Theatre until 22 February

Watching Blurred Lines, Nick Payne’s latest play created in close collaboration with director, Carrie Cracknell and the eight members of the all-female cast, is not a particularly comfortable experience for a male reviewer. This is not because it consists of seventy minutes of radicalised polemic damning all men to one of Dante’s more unpleasant circles of hell but rather because it does the reverse; performances are restrained, arguments are calm and reasonable, but clearly lying underneath the surface is an anger. An anger one suspects is born out both of individual experience and universal frustration.

It is primarily directed at rather oblique targets; the unthinking gender stereotyping that is ingrained into societies structures, the hardwired responses that define human relationships and the way that our understanding of women is being moulded Blurred Lines, The Shed by the relentlessly battery of consumer culture.

To describe the production as a play is not quite accurate, as it suggests a more cohesive piece that has a narrative thread running through it. What is presented is more a series of case studies – template models of the gender imbalances women face on a daily basis. This approach is perhaps not surprising, in part because it is based on Kat Banyard’s book, The Equality Illusion, and also because the purpose is to present the universal alongside the individual.

If this all sounds a little dry then the collaborative feel of the work, performed by an excellent cast, give the scenes the relaxed feel of a community workshop rather than the cold air of a lecture theatre. The bite-size chunks also suit the modern world’s preferred way of digesting information; in the internet age grand narratives are out and bullet-point lists are in. If you don’t engage with one scene – and not all of them work perfectly – then don’t worry as another will be along in a moment.

Blurred Lines is bookended with two stand-out scenes. Nick Payne, as he has demonstrated in previous work, has a poet’s ear for finding something musical in everyday language. This is showcased in the first scene, which reminds of the opening to London Road, itself a piece of verbatim theatre, and that demonstrates that real speech, taken out of context, can contain a tremendous power and vitality.

The scene sets the play’s direction with a wonderfully observed perspective of what being a woman means to other people. The cast come together as one voice with many mouths to present the audience with a series of tart one-liners of how women are portrayed. In the scene women are broken down to nameless, definable adjectives; when they are deemed worthy of being given more status it is directly through their relationship to a male. They become ‘wife of…’, ‘mother of…’ and through this their lives are given an implicit meaning.

The round starts with common descriptions that soon descend to absurdity and anger with the relentless repetition and the fall-back to common descriptors. Rose West’s ‘character face’ repeats again and again, and any initial amusement fades as the audience understands that it is another example of the malleability of the English language that has learnt to hide overt misogyny behind a second, socially acceptable double-speak.

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Luton: Immortalised

The Same Deep Water As Me – Donmar Warehouse, until 28 September 2013

Set in Luton, featuring personal injury lawyers and conventionally played, Nick Payne’s The Same Deep Water As Me at first glance appears to have an underwhelming premise to follow his sparkly original and hugely successful Constellations. However Nick Payne, despite young in years, has already begun to establish a formidable reputation as a playwright with an ear for the patter of the everyday voices and so it proves with a solid follow-up to one of the more original plays of recent years.

Mark Wooten

Payne’s talent goes farther than the mimicking of the everyday, it is also possible to see him channelling the distinctive voices of the late 20th century. There was a Stoppardian verve to the writing that grounded Constellations and it  is impossible to watch The Same Deep Water As Me and not recognise the muscularity of Mamet lying below the surface.

It is rare, in British playwriting, to find someone who can so convincingly evoke the language of those that may be labelled the working middle-classes. His characters seem to spring from a previously untapped well of working professionals; strong working-class roots but perhaps the first to make use of widening university provision.

By and large Payne writes characters who are near-invisible on the stage, and who are often routinely talked-down and patronised by those who see themselves as the guardians of culture. They do not have a socialist chip on their shoulders but they also are not part of the institutional elites; in short they are not political but are fiercely individual and rarely do playwrights try to illuminate the inner-lives and desires.

At times Payne’s writing is reminiscent of a well-crafted stand-up routine; turning ordinary lives into something faintly surreal and highlighting the hidden absurdity’s in established routines. Rather than grotesque caricatures, Payne finds humanity in the everyday.  A repeat call-back to Greggs – a very modern class touchstone – under Payne’s gentle probing reveals glimpses of a hidden world where relationships develop and life experience is shared. We find the quality of a steak slice is quantified and rated with the same precision that foodies reserve for bread and olives.

The shadow of Mamet is impossible to ignore and these is reinforced through both plot and structure. The ambulance-chasing, insurance scams of In The Same Deep Water As Me operates in a similar moral universal to Glengarry Glen Ross.  They both operate within a macho-office-based culture; they are full of people who are not operating at the margins but are still having to scrap and scramble to survive.

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A new star shines brightly in Constellations

Constellations – Duke of York’s Theatreuntil January 05 2013

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 Stars that I did see at Nick Payne's Constellations (Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall)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.

Stars that I didn't see at Nick Payne's Constellations

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.

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