Theatre

‘Constellations’ online review – Multiversal romance is excellently existential

★★★★

There’s another place to get your metaverse fix this winter beyond the scope of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The recent Donmar Warehouse production of Nick Payne’s ethereal, intrinsic and thought-provoking play Constellations has been made available on-demand, complete with the four alternative duos – Zoë Wanamaker and Peter Capaldi; Russell Tovey and Omari Douglas; Ivanno Jeremiah and Sheila Alim; and Anna Maxwell-Martin and Chris O’Dowd – offering their own takes on a script exploring infinite possibilities.

Its opening scenes are probably the shortest in theatre. Quantum physicist Marianne (Wanamaker/Atim/Maxwell-Martin/Douglas – the latter of whom plays the gender-swapped Manuel) makes her move on beekeeper Roland (Capaldi/Tovey/Jeremiah/O’Dowd), only to be told that they’re taken or they’ve just come out of a serious relationship. The lights go down, and we start the process again.

A viewer far more critical than I may well dismiss this as repetitive, as the same scenes are acted out with the smallest of changes, but if you choose to indulge yourself in the same areas of cosmology which fascinate Marianne, then one can come to appreciate the philosophical and existential questions explored in this fascinating, theatrical thought experiment. What moments truly define us? Where do our stories end? How much of our future lies in the small language and intonation choices we make everyday?

The latter is particularly intriguing when certain scenes are looped, and what is otherwise minuscule such as emphasis on a word becomes the focal point under Michael Longhurst’s direction. Other times, it’s the intensity of an emotion: how much passion comes with a proposal, or to what extent paranoia comes into play when the other person goes out and doesn’t text you about where they’ve been. So explorative is Constellations in how the tiniest instances influence our personalities that one imagines it must be hard to establish the ‘default’ characteristics of Roland and Marianne before they’re played with across multiple parallel universes.

That lies in Payne’s script, and across each version, we see a laid-back Roland who is reactive rather than proactive when it comes to dialogue, and a reserved Marianne who conceals most of her emotions behind philosophy and scientific theories. Each pair’s attempt at constructing a skeleton for their role is reviewed in further detail towards the end of this article.

In amongst all the variance are at least a couple of constants. One is the occasional break in the linear narrative to hone in on a future health concern from Marianne, Lee Curran’s lighting design gives the couple a more orange, ethereal glow in contrast to the otherwise whiter light. Another is Tom Scutt’s set design, the floating molecules around the stage’s perimeters and the honeycomb tiling of the floor being the perfect combination of the two characters’ interests as their worlds collide (pun most definitely intended). Credit must also be given to British Sign Language (BSL) consultant Daryl Jackson for his role in insuring the BSL scenes were both accessible and personal in terms of style.

Great theatre is there to make you think, and Constellations certainly does that – giving you one hell of an existential crisis in the process.

A white man with short grey hair in a blue shirt embraces a white woman with spikey grey hair and a beige jumper. She wraps her arms around him as they do a ballroom dance together.
Photo: Marc Brenner.

Zoë Wanamaker and Peter Capaldi – ★★★ – Although Marianne is written as a reserved individual, Wanamaker’s take on the character is one which is a little too soft and delicate for moments when the physicist gets a little more aggressive and passionate. It works perfectly for the play’s tragic elements and the initial fumbling of romance, but there is little in terms of range to the extent that moments of anger read like quite the outlier against her gentler side built up across most of the production. Capaldi’s Roland is pleasantly reactive to Marianne’s dialogue, but is – across multiple parallel universes – passive in terms of conversation. As a duo, the steady pacing and tender relationship is endearing and affecting as it develops, but a lack of emotional intensity, I feel, hinders the play from being as striking as it could be.

A white woman with short blonde hair and a green shirt lays on the floor of a stage. Right, a white man with curly black hair and a blue hair, also sitting, leans in towards her.
Photo: Marc Brenner.

Anna Maxwell-Martin and Chris O’Dowd – ★★★★ – ‘Laughter’ would be the one word to describe this pairing, as the ‘Line of Duty’ star and ‘The IT Crowd’ comedian giggle their way through most lines in their performance – but it works. It captures the giddiness of romance, the idea of being ‘drunk on love’ and truly letting your guard down. As such, the switch from jokes to alleviate the tension of newfound love to gallows humour is devastating. Similarly, when one thinks some more about the tragic conclusion to the play (which I won’t spoil here), Maxwell-Martin’s fast delivery of Marianne’s initial dialogue is even more impressive, as is her use of BSL, considering hearing people sometimes have the tendency to sign ‘flat’, with just the signs and no lip patterns. It’s clear that Maxwell-Martin worked closely with Jackson as her signing is remarkably expressive. O’Dowd’s Roland complements his co-star’s Marianne well with the humour, portraying the beekeeper with a playful curiosity which feels like a far more natural approach to the many probing questions asked by his character over the whole play, an amusing incredulousness to how coincidental everything is. There’s a strong chemistry here between these two fine actors, and we can feel its range deeply. This pairing is, I believe, the best of the four.

A Black woman with short black hair and a white shirt embraces a Black man with short black hair wearing a green shirt. They are slightly lit by a warm orange glow, otherwise the background is black.
Photo: Marc Brenner.

Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah – ★★★★ – Atim takes on a more self-assured Marianne in comparison to the other actresses, with more confidence in herself than any degree of hesitancy. It’s a curious set-up for ‘Humans’ actor Ivanno Jeremiah, as his Roland encourages her to let her guard down. When the play’s turning point occurs, the pain is in Marianne being faced with the unusual feeling of uncertainty for someone who was previously so comfortable. Roland, who was previously patient in following Marianne, becomes the one who tries to reassure her and control the uncontrollable. Other Rolands do this too, to an extent, but realising he can’t stop the inevitable – the play’s narrative itself suggests we are simply on pre-determined paths, after all – Jeremiah’s take is incredibly emotional. While others choose to ‘stay strong’ for their respective Mariannes until the end, there’s a faltering with this Roland which feels a lot more raw, genuine and authentic.

A white man in a blue shirt stands on stage with his hands in his pockets. On the right, a Black man in a pink shirt clasps his hands to his chest. He looks emotional. Behind them, at the back of the stage and in the air above them, are white balloons, lit up in a faint blue glow.
Photo: Marc Brenner.

Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey – ★★★ – The same-sex take on Payne’s script leads to a few curious and amusing changes to the dialogue to make it work. Stylistically, Douglas and Tovey’s performance is, of course, queer. They’re the only pairing to actually conjure up sexual tension when Roland says he’s being turned on by Marianne’s (or, in this case, Manuel’s) explanation of quantum physics, and there’s a flavour of camp BSL when that scene comes around. Yet, at the same time, some of their takes on plot points are horrifically poor and abrasive. There’s no doubt that Tovey reading out Roland’s engagement speech in a London accent is supposed to be comical in contrast to the nature of his character, but it just appears completely out of place tonally and characteristically. Speaking of which, Manuel’s development in this instance sees a reduction in his expressiveness. Gone are his smirks and most of the gesticulations when the narrative reaches its climax, as he becomes more calm and reserved. His easy-going stature makes him an endearing individual, but means sections of his speech which could be more blunt or direct are brushed over. His pointed criticism of Roland, although frustratingly rare, is particularly hard-hitting. Roland, meanwhile, starts off sarky with a humorous disbelief to the unfolding events, before both him and Manuel are visibly emotional. The unique twist on the story is refreshing and thought-provoking, but some of the creative and artistic choices really are out of line. 

All four productions of Constellations are available to watch online until 31 January 2022. Audio described and captioned versions are available.


Production Images: Marc Brenner.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch all four versions of ‘Constellations’ for free in exchange for a review of the performances as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated are honest and my own.

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