Constellations Review


Constellations – image courtesy of Official Theatre London

Finally, I get round to reviewing this stellar (sorry) production, originally staged at the Royal Court and now playing at the Duke of York Theatre – I wanted to see it when it was the former, but missed the cut. You know, it’s the classic procrastination period until finally all the tickets have been snapped up. You can buy tickets on the internet and it’s a case of – ah, I’ll do it when I’m not feeling so broke. Usually for me, in the world of cash, I’m perpetually sliding down so it’s usually best to buy early – in this case, maybe not – I got them at a reasonable price in a place where I don’t have to strain my neck so much! Result!

Anyway, onto the actual show.

What strikes me the most is the beautiful yet minimal staging – a flotilla of balloons and the gumball-esque constructs upstage. You might think it’s the beginning of a party, when the balloons will be savagely cut down to allow another frieze frame of a scenario – but it’s recurrent throughout the play. Of course, theatre is adept at creating a particular angle or snapshot of a scenario and parade it for all to see, and this is no exception. However, although the cast is small — a two hander – it inevitably spans a multi-verse of different routes and paths the two characters take in their relationship. It’s often a critique of theatre that it cannot create mega texts in the same way as Science Fiction can in the same way as say film or the novel, but this spans alternate timelines in such a poignant, yet stripped down way (the poignant part will be too spoiler-ish, but it is very touching – and another way theatre can create the idea of disconnect and miscommunication much more directly than most media).

An apiarist (a bee-keeper to you and I) Roland (Rafe Spall) and a cosmologist Marianne (Sally Hawkins) are presented in many different scenarios – where they make it down the aisle to where they don’t even make it past the first conversation. You’d think it would  be hard to communicate this, but Nick Payne’s great, simplistic yet powerful writing drives the message within the first few minutes. It opens with a cheerful icebreaker as  Sally Hawkins attempts to get Rafe Spall to lick his elbow – saying that this will promote immortality – a rather chilling aspect in hindsight.  His reactions differ from him being disinterested, to being otherwise engaged  (him and her), to actually continuing the conversation. The acting in this is superb, and Rafe Spall being known for his role in the dry comedy Jeff vs. Life actually helps I think, in the way that his life is being portrayed as branching off in different directions as a result of different and slight permutations. How the characters stop, start, chop and change from one reality to the next, with the emotional ability to switch chameleon-like to the context was really engaging to watch. I did get very emotional at several points, as even though Nick Payne gets to voice the concept of quantum entanglement and the alternative universes through the cosmologist, there is a strong human quality to it that we can all empathise with. What if I did this differently? What if I wasn’t there to meet him/her? Was I meant to marry them from the beginning and can I change my fate? The idea of alternate realities can absolve us of some responsibility – what we may have done in one branch we may have done differently, or does it increase our sense of having to do things exactly in our minds in order to create the rather ubiquitous term of “utopia”? What is out of our control? It’s an amazing piece, that only an hour long and spanning several realities of just two people, can satisfy mentally and emotionally for a long time after viewing.

I do believe that this is a great example of Science Fiction in theatre – taking a concept and staging it through metaphor, emphasising human reaction and emotional connect like links on a chain. A must see. Nick Payne is one of the great emerging talents in the playwriting scene – I’ve read comparisons to him with Tom Stoppard, but I feel this play in particular is more Churchill-esque, with that simplistic yet raw dialogue – and how he creates potent images with minimalist settings. Michael Longhurst has done a great job in directing this, too.

Thrills of the Year

As it comes to the end of 2012, it’s been amazing what’s happened in such a short period of time. As you may know, I started writing plays maybe in dibs and drabs at the end of my first year at uni (about 7 years ago), and really focused on writing short stories, novellas and poetry. Reading and seeing plays have always been my passion, but I tended to view them at a distance – they looked so intimidating too write, subtle but engaging in such a different way. Finally, I overcame my fear in a rather bold move – writing my MA thesis as a full length play (first one I did). Since then, playwriting has become my “go-to” medium. Writers are often famous for pursuing a particular medium, with their attempts at the others either banished from the light or simply vanishing into obscurity. I do like writing short stories, however, but it takes me a while to get used to articulating what I really mean, whereas playwriting comes to me a lot more naturally, as does poetry, I think. It’ll take me a good while to write a story that goes somewhere, whereas a play or a poem is something I could knock out once the muse gets through the spiral static.

Anyway! My point was to share what’s been going on. As a stage manager, script reader and assistant director, I’ve been used to seeing new writing, assisting rehearsals and operating etc. but to see it with my own work is such a thrill that makes it feel that I’m entering the process anew. The best part is rehearsal, seeing what the actors make of their character and little mind travels that I never realised I was plotting while writing. It’s a beautiful collaborative process which I guess is a lot different from the relay from editor to writer (wait, I should know this, haha!). I’ve learnt a lot from what exercises can be built through a script, especially in terms of building the sense of cognitive estrangement in the sci fi play that I wrote to the shaping and directing of attention in the simple scene of En Passant. I do want to be writing short stories (I’m in the process of writing one now, actually), but the whole process of playwriting is something I definitely want to pursue further. The words you write are just a blueprint – it’s great because even though after the excitement of getting the words down, it’s just the beginning. Plays are famous for being never finished – it’s like a doll that’s put in its box after every performance. Every time you take it out to play it’s an entirely different character.

I want to thank all the directors, producers, actors and of course the audiences who support new writing. It’s been an amazing journey and I cross my fingers to get more opportunities like this in 2013!

Next post will be on Constellations – an amazingly domesticated play linking quantum realities with the relationship of two people. The staging is almost bare but the illusions are easy to grasp, powerful yet subtle. It relies on the actors so much to be able to stop and start and repeat – reminiscent, I’d say of Churchill in A Number. Anyway, I’m rambling. I spent some time on the journey back from the play swearing to myself at some intervals – it taught me a lot, folks!


Also, I’m in Doollee! This is so exciting – to be listed with playwrights since 1956 I believe. Even my advisor for my PhD is listed there too. His name is Dan Rebellato and is a great playwright and academic!

Check out my profile here. Not all of them have been produced of course, but it’s great if you want to see hints of what might be made flesh in the future!