“At any given moment, several outcomes can coexist simultaneously.”
In Constellations, Marianne (Shannon Hayes), an expert in theoretical physics, meets Roland (Calam Lynch), a beekeeper, and this is how she explains the ‘multiverse’ theory to him. The ‘multiverse’ is the set of all the possible universes, which encompass all that exists. The play portrays the love story between Marianne and Roland in all its infinite possibilities, from the beginning to the end. No episode happens just once. The meeting, the seduction, the break-up, the proposal… everything is repeated at least three times, each time in a different way.
Far from being dull or repetitive, Constellations is an excruciatingly beautiful play. it comprises all human experiences at their most intense: love, sex, anger, sadness, embarrassment, illness, death. Constellations is deep and powerful, and the Experimental Theatre Club (ETC) brought Nick Payne’s play to life with incredible sophistication.
As performance for only two actors, Constellations requires an intimate space for the audience to appreciate it at its fullest. Set designer Chris Burr’s decision to have the spectators sit in a circle, near to the actors, was effective in achieving this sense of closeness. To obtain it, only the stage space of the O’Reilly Theatre was used, with a hexagonal construction designed for the play: the usual seating space was hidden. Sammy Glover’s masterful direction ensured that the two actors kept moving around the space, allowing spectators on all sides to view the performance from different angles. The stage was bare, and the actors’ clothes were normal, everyday. The decision to have the actors play barefoot added to the closeness of the whole play: it gave the feeling of watching not just two people onstage, but two naked souls.
The lighting design (also by Chris Burr) was particularly successful in giving the sense of being suspended in the midst of the cosmos. Hexagonal prisms hung from the ceiling, amplifying the reflection of the lights to enhance the stellar, cosmic landscape the play constantly dragged its audience into. Although initially, without the actors on stage, this felt a bit like the lighting of a club, it actually proved to be perfect for the development of the play. As the only “decorative” element, the hexagons reminded me of both Roland’s beehives and of the six faces of the die. The die recalls the multiverse theory: each face represents a different possibility, each face is a separate universe. But there is always an element of uncertainty at the throwing of the dice. In the very same way, Constellations never settles on any of the possible scenarios it proposes: they all coexist together.
The play revolves not only around repetition of episodes, but also around flashbacks and flash-forwards. Some episodes are gradually pieced together, often starting from the end and then going back to the beginning through repetitions. Passages from one episode to another were carried out by turning lights off for a fraction of time, just to allow actors to shift into their new positions. In this way, the performance never lost its fast-pace. The audience was kept on the edge of their seats, waiting to see what new elaboration would follow, or indeed what episode.
The play’s gradual turn from bittersweet to tragic happens slowly but inexorably, with the amazing on-stage chemistry between the two leading actors key in depicting this shift. Their relationship evolved throughout the play, but perhaps reached its peak in the scene where the two use sign language to communicate. Both Lynch’s and Hayes’s performances were strikingly refined and potent, but it was the intertwining of the two that allowed the play to take an extra step towards the polished feel of the whole production.
The tragic acme was reached in the penultimate scene, where the pathos that actors conveyed was so intense that many spectators (including myself) were in tears. Without wanting to give spoilers, the final scene somehow reminded me of the ‘Postscript’ of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement: Briony decides to give her novel a fictional ending, giving her characters the time they did not have in real life. In the same way, Constellations ends with a positive scenario, one that spurs the spectator to keep imagining what other events will follow. The performance only lasted around 60 minutes, but its intensity made it feel much longer. The emotional response of the audience was such that there was a well-deserved standing ovation in the final applause.
Constellations asks some of the deepest questions of mankind: who are we? What is our fate? What is our place in the universe? Is this the only universe we are given? Do we truly have free will? This production managed to convey the profundity of the play without ever being rhetorical or affected. It captured the essence of the script, rendered with powerful elegance.
Constellations runs at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre until 6 February. More information is available on the theatre website. Tickets can be purchased here.
We are on Twitter @Oxford_Culture, and on Facebook