Tender as the night: Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Constellations

I first heard about Nick Payne’s play Constellations soon after it opened in London in January 2012. If I had been in London a week longer, I probably would have seen it. Hailed variously as “virtuosic, intelligent” and “beautiful,” Constellations is essentially a “boy-meets-girl romantic comedy” which uses a healthy dose of quantum theory to become something quite profound and moving. Presented here by the Darlinghurst Theatre Company in its Sydney premiere, Payne’s Constellations, like Lucy Prebble's The Effect, is intelligent, beautiful, and as tender as the night.

Marianne and Roland meet at a barbecue, and we get glimpses of their relationship as it blossoms and snags, as they grow and change, as tragedy slowly envelops them. Utilising quantum mechanics, string theory, and the multiple universe (or multiverse) theory – whereby every choice that has existed or will ever exist occurs in its own separate universe, with ramifications branching off from them ad infinitum. It’s a thrillingly mind-boggling idea to wrap your head around at the best of times, but in Payne’s words and in the hands of director Anthony Skuse, it is beguiling and hypnotic; it sucks you in and then quietly breaks your heart. Much of the first half of Constellations unfolds with a kind of Stoppardian verve, a deliciously capricious sense of its own logic and rules, while dashes of quantum theory are thrown in for good measure (just to make sure we’re awake) and the finer points of bee-keeping buzz around the action.
Skuse’s direction, as in On The Shore of the Wide World at Griffin earlier this year, is subtle, unobtrusive and gentle; his cast – Sam O’Sullivan and Emma Palmer – let Payne’s story unfold with grace, warmth and a fierceness of spirit which never feels forced or imposed. There is an endearing lankiness, a charming playfulness to O’Sullivan’s Roland, and his heart-full of love for Palmer’s Marianne is sometimes all-too-obvious. Palmer brings a quiet despair to Marianne’s later scenes, and an intoxicating mischievousness to her earlier ones, especially when she’s encouraging O’Sullivan to lick his elbows in the quest for immortality; if you weren’t so conscious of two-hundred others sitting around you, you’d be sorely tempted to try it yourself. As Marianne’s affliction with expressive aphasia – the inability to express words in any form, even if you can think or hear them in your head – gets progressively more pronounced, their physical closeness – in fact, their very physicality – seems to become more noticeable, until they are often found lying beside or around each other on the raked stage, an intimacy borne out of familiarity but also a shared bond of words and knowledge. Both Palmer and O’Sullivan bring Payne’s humour and intelligence to life with a warmth that is not often found in real life; there is a closeness and a real sense of companionship between them, and it makes the play all the more beautiful, all the more heartbreaking because of it.
Gez Xavier Mansfield’s set is a simple black raked platform; set against the bare walls of the Eternity Playhouse, there’s a beautiful kind of juxtaposition between the (restored and albeit fading) splendour of the old Burton Street Tabernacle and the sleek unobtrusive simplicity of Mansfield’s set. His costumes, too, are unobtrusive to the point of functionality, and they feel not so much like costumes per se, but what designer Alice Babidge prefers to call clothes. Marty Jamieson’s sound design is similarly simple, and only intrudes when necessary, a series of hauntingly plaintive piano notes, a fragment of a tune you might remember from a long long time ago.
Payne’s play works on the idea that in each moment of conversation, there are times when emphasis on a different word or replacing one word with another could have made all the difference in a situation, and so his scenes – or fragments of scenes – are broken with a horizontal line; you can see they are in a different layer of the multiverse to the one previous. In performance, however, this needs to be made clear, otherwise the first few minutes are spent in a strange kind of Groundhog Day-like loop, caught up in the same moment, shifting slightly with each variation. It’s a device David Ives uses in his short play Sure Thing, which plays out in much the same way except in only ten minutes. Where Payne’s play differs from Ives’ is in its complexity – while Ives’ is beguiling and diverting for a short time, Payne’s takes you on an astonishingly honest and revealing journey with his two characters and the infinite number of possibilities that are available to him. In some of Payne’s variations, Skuse has Palmer and O’Sullivan adopt British (and on one or two occasions, Irish) accents, while in others they play them in their normal accents. While not specified in Payne’s play, I don’t think the accents are crucial to the play’s unfolding, and only serve to jar later on when their British accent noticeably appears after many scenes without. But these are but two slight quibbles in an otherwise strong production.
While Skuse’s pacing drops somewhat in the final third, he manages – over its ninety minutes – to craft a tangible and physical intimacy which magnifies and expands its own humanity, which amplifies its warmth and beauty. Intelligent, sexy, hypnotic and a little bit mind-boggling, these Constellations will make you want to reach out for the stars, live with all the furiousness and energy that you can muster, and be a warmer and more gentle person.

Theatre playlist: 48. Moments of Falling, Stuart Greenbaum

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