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Print Version

By Nick Payne
Directed by Rachel Lenart

at Circa Two, Wellington
From 26 Jul 2014 to 23 Aug 2014

Reviewed by John Smythe, 28 Jul 2014

The instant a writer of fiction in any form – or a composer, choreographer or artist of any kind – starts work on a new idea, they are playing the ‘what if …?' game. Some people like to think our lives are determined by a higher power – God – so tend to see whatever happens as ‘meant to be'. Others are more inclined to ‘chaos theory' but feel compelled to find meaning in whatever happens randomly. 

Most of us muse from time to time on the complex network of choices, purposeful actions and unexpected events that impact our lives, and wonder ‘what if?'. Perhaps our genes seal certain elements of our fate but we get to choose what we make that mean and how we handle it. Or could it be that every action any of us takes is simply an inevitable consequence of all that has gone before, which means ‘choice' is illusory? 

These are the metaphysical conundrums British playwright Nick Payne – a graduate of York University, Central School of Speech and Drama, and the Royal Court Young Writer's Programme – plays with in Constellations, which premiered at the Royal Court in 2012.

Initially it seems he's tossing around different options for how a relationship might start when Marianne and Roland meet at a barbecue, and the actors – Erin Banks and Richard Dey, in this Rachael Lenart-directed production at Circa Theatre – are testing the options for him. But of course the variations are the point, although her opening gambit about licking elbows remains a constant.

It turns out Roland is a beekeeper who admires the bees' absolute certainty of purpose, determined by their role in the hive hierarchy. Marianne is a quantum physicist and muses on quantum multiverse theory, where everything you've ever done exists in one universe while everything you've never done but could have done instead – i.e. every possible future – exists in parallel universes. But maintaining a sense free will, of control, over her life is important: “I have to have a choice!” she insists, in one of the many recurring sequences.  

While Michael Frayn's superbly crafted Copenhagen, which played in the same Circa Two space in 2002, is a profound and playful philosophical exploration of Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and the quantum mechanics of science, politics and other human behaviour, Nick Payne simply uses quantum mechanics, general relativity, string theory and beekeeping as a background conceptual context.

The variations on the story of Marianne and Roland's relationship are played out in everyday – some might say prosaic – scenarios we can all relate to, and Banks and Dey do a brilliant job of switching from one possibility to another, infusing each with entirely or subtly different emotions, moods and states of being. The lightness of touch they bring to the transitions belies the rigorous process they and Lenart must have gone through in rehearsal. The truth they bring to each moment generates some delightful comedy.

Intercut with the relatively linear relationship story is a glimpse of something that presages what is to come – although “time is irrelevant at the level of atoms” – and here Payne is teasing us with ‘what is it?' rather than ‘what if?' In developing a script most playwrights also ask themselves ‘what would it take?' to produce a result they wish to achieve and of course Payne has made a choice that clearly determines the story's destination.  

What is finally revealed is a radical ‘game-changer', again a range of alternatives are played out and in the end the question of choice becomes what you might call ‘ultimate' (obliqueness intended to avoid a spoiler).

Apart from the great pleasure of watching two actors ply their craft exquisitely, Constellations engages its audience by compelling us to analyse and judge the variables, and ask ourselves what we would have done in the circumstances.

Lauren Stewart's simple black box space is furnished only with two slatted pale pine seats. Honeycomb shapes dot the back walls and clear glass light bulbs hang in the space and over the small auditorium and glow in various combinations: the major feature of Marcus McShane's lighting design. Tane Upjohn-Beatson's sound design and ethereal original compositions – recorded with violin soloist Yury Gezentsvey and the Quadrivium string quartet – complete the splendidly integrated design elements, implemented by Technical Operator  Deb McGuire.   

It's probably irrelevant for me to wonder what if Payne had further explored the question of choice, control and responsibility by including some reference to the global threat to bee populations, and therefore to our very survival, brought about by insecticides. But that's how it goes with a play like this: you can't help thinking …
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 Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media]


Rachel Lenart posted 28 Jul 2014, 10:32 PM / edited 29 Jul 2014, 12:00 AM

Thank you for your review, John (i particularly appreciate the deliberate obliqueness) You are right to muse your final what if. In fact, the impetus for the play that became Constellations was indeed an exploration into the plight and politics of the Bees. Payne obviously diverted here and created this play instead, but it is a politic that i hope the story supports, however indirectly, and i'm pleased you draw attention to it here. Coincidentally. August is Bee Aware month and Constellations are proud to support this. You can make a donation to the National Bee Keepers association (bank account number in the link) or follow the link below to find other ways to support a heathy bee population in your own garden!