How many ways can the same story be told? Innumerably, if quantum physics has anything to do with it. Or as the string theorist Marianne tells the bemused beekeeper Roland: “Every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.”
Those multiple realities are enacted in Nick Payne’s dazzling play as we follow the central romance between Marianne and Roland through its possibilities, not neatly from beginning to end but as a jigsaw of simultaneous moments. Like Florian Zeller’s The Father, the exploration of time (and dimension here) is captured in the play’s form, so we jump forward, back and sideways to watch the couple’s parallel lives unfold.
First staged at the Royal Court in 2012, it is a play with many worlds inside it and an extra dimension has been added to this revival at the Vaudeville theatre; four pairs of couples play the same parts on different nights across the run. Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah, alongside Peter Capaldi and Zoë Wanamaker, are the first pairs to perform.
Some scenes are repeated five times with varying outcomes and altered moods, an endeavour that could easily resemble a rehearsal room exercise in the wrong hands. It doesn’t happen here, thanks to some very fine acting, though it is also testimony to Michael Longhurst’s direction that the play feels alive with ideas, action and fizz, but is balanced with stillness and depth. Changes of scenes (and time-frames) are sometimes indicated simply by a tonal inflection or change of stance. The story all but reveals its tragic ending early – we travel towards an untimely death – but its plot ingeniously keeps us guessing.
Just as the play makes the point that there is no singularity in the moment, there is no single play here either, despite both casts speaking the same lines. Atim and Jeremiah have the edge for comedy and pace. They conjure an instant chemistry and bring out every last laugh, as well as switching cleanly between moods. When the darkness comes, its contrast is all the more dramatic. There is less naturalism to Capaldi and Wanamaker’s performance, which feels more overtly theatrical at first, but they mellow and bring a meditative quality, both cuter and more melancholic. The story gathers different shades too, with the comparatively older pair of actors performing it.
Plurality is there in Tom Scutt’s set, a luminous skyline of helium balloons which looks joyously silly – a little like a heavenly ball-pit – as well as both interstellar and creepily otherworldly. Lee Curran’s lighting and David McSeveney’s sound design creates the taut, suspenseful atmosphere of a thriller, with crackles of light, sound and jagged electrical snaps.
Plays containing complex science have sometimes succumbed to the pitfall of too much cerebral theorising (Copenhagen is one example). But this play manifests its science organically in both form and content, applying its quantum physics to the human drama with fantastic imagination, and playing with formal non-linearity with no sense of shallowness or gimmickry.
It is a high-concept romance – a Sliding Doors to the power of 100 – and many other things at once: a drama about time and memory, about death and grief, playful and profound, comic and mournful. It asks big questions about existence, purpose and free will but, like the helium balloons in the backdrop, also feels weightless and fun. It affirms life, love and companionship even as it drives towards the death of its ending. A theatrical multiverse indeed.
Constellations is at the Vaudeville theatre until 12 September.