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.