It is nine years since Constellations first dazzled me at the Royal Court, with its down-to-earth dialogue and its vaulting form. Nick Payne’s play has since been produced on Broadway, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson, been broadcast as an arresting drama on Radio 3, and been seen in a Mandarin version with God represented by a hamster. Directed by Michael Longhurst and designed by Tom Scutt, as in 2012, it is taking on a new variousness. Over the course of the summer it will be performed by four different casts. The play may challenge the idea of free will, but the audience can take its pick of which duo to see.
This is not mere ingenuity. Openness to different alternatives, and a pliable idea of reality, are at the centre of Constellations, whose script is prefaced with the instruction that “an indented rule indicates a change in universe”. The different possibilities that might flow from an encounter between two people – staying together, betraying each other, falling ill, being let off the hook – are acted in brief scenes, one contradicting or inflecting the next. One of the pair is a quantum physicist, the other is a beekeeper – occupations that are vital to the action, and immediately apparent in Scutt’s witty design.
The floor of the stage is faintly patterned like a honeycomb; above it float white, blue and grey balloons. Like everything else here, they are changeable: made heavy or transparent by Lee Curran’s lighting, they look sometimes like clouds, sometimes like clusters of cells, sometimes like ghostly partygoers. It’s a setting that wires you into the play without being dully literal. As we think of bringing some life to our mostly hideous sculptures and other public art, we might look to stage designers again – as we did to Tom Piper and his poppies on the centenary of the first world war – to learn how a subject can be illuminated, not merely represented.
Always, the very idea of time is beaten up as we watch alternative versions of the same moment
Longhurst has explained how, up till now, he has always directed the play with the couple seen as heterosexual, white and in their 30s: at the Royal Court they were played (excellently) by Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall. It is a sign not only of the elasticity of Payne’s writing but also of the slow rousing of the British stage that these qualities are no longer considered to define the default position. On press day the parts were taken by Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah, black actors barely out of their 20s, and Peter Capaldi and Zoë Wanamaker, more than 30 years older and white.
Later, Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O’Dowd will alternate with Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey. Longhurst has written interestingly about the difference it has made to him as a gay man to see the play with a male couple at the centre – and, spoiler, no Aids. Some local emphases change with casting – a cancer diagnosis comes with the information that the prognosis is altered by age – but essentials are the same. Always, the very idea of time is beaten up as we watch alternative versions of the same moment; whose time are the audience in anyway, ours or the actors?
Capaldi and Wanamaker are the more self-aware couple: Wanamaker, habitually graceful, is one of the few actors who can appear simultaneously quizzical and candid. Capaldi, more at home with time-travelling than most, has a bumbling floridity that is startling phrase by phrase but almost too buzzing for a beekeeper.
Atim and Jeremiah are more open and more edgy. Jeremiah begins with an appealing playfulness that gradually becomes shadowed and weighted; Atim shows, as she did in the Donmar Shakespeares and Girl from the North Country, that simply by standing still she can create a force field. Her eyes narrow; her smile blazes. She is particularly good at shutting down the odd bit of nonsense, as when, in an all too credible passage, Jeremiah tells her that her scientific descriptions are turning him on (Atim is herself a science graduate). She takes charge of the whimsical opening statement – likely to produce some frisky contortions in the stalls – that it’s impossible to lick your own elbows. Atim actually manages to act with her elbows, sliding them around like instruments of seduction.
This is not the first time that the principle of uncertainty has been embodied theatrically: Michael Frayn achieved this incisively 23 years ago in Copenhagen. Nor is it the only time that a playwright has brought together bees and string theory: in 2001, Charlotte Jones did so in Humble Boy. Still, Constellations comes up fresh because of the nippiness of its exchanges – truncated but clear – and its undercutting of cliche. It is hard to imagine it better performed than on these starry, starry nights.
Extinct takes to the stage with a smouldering Canada heatwave to bolster its argument. “I have,” Kiran Landa tells the audience in playwright April De Angelis’s monologue, “an hour to convert you to the cause of climate change”. It is an oddly ambiguous statement (are we for or against?), but of course we know what she means. I wish I thought she would succeed.
I don’t doubt the need for urgent declaration, and a call to action. No one could fail to be struck by the accumulated data that is presented, at times pelted. “Every living system of Earth is in decline.” Half the population of Nigeria has no access to water. During the Australian bushfires of 2019 and 2020, 30,000 koalas were burnt to death. Rising oceans mean that by 2050, Bangkok, New York City and the Theatre Royal Stratford East are among the places that could be underwater.
Yet this data, and the first-hand reports of a Bangladeshi woman whose family is devastated by flooding (Landa covers her head with a scarf to deliver her statements), are confusingly interleaved with imagined scenes from a catastrophic near-future. In 2030 it’s 40C; drought and fire have led a global shortage of carbohydrates; supermarkets are bare; looters run riot; the army is sent in; there is a shootout.
Directed by Kirsty Housley, Landa is ardent; Peter McKintosh’s design and Nina Dunn’s videos set the background ablaze and goo the boards with black oil, which Landa festoons over herself so that she becomes like the bleakest of slicked gulls. Primed for apocalypse by the pandemic, it becomes hard to disentangle present fact from future nightmare. It is the causes for alarm that we need to know, not the sensations.
Star ratings (out of five)