Following critically acclaimed, sold-out runs in the West End and on Broadway, the Royal Court Theatre presents the first UK tour of Nick Payne’s explosive new play about free will and friendship.
Starring Louise Brealey (Sherlock) and Joe Armstrong (Happy Valley, Hollow Crown, The Village, Robin Hood) the boundless potential of a connection between two people leads us through a heart-breaking love story of endless invention.
Since winning the George Devine Award in 2009, Nick Payne (Art of Dying, Wanderlust) has grown to be one of the UK’s foremost playwrights. This new play presented by the Royal Court Theatre and directed by the award-winning Michael Longhurst (If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, Remembrance Day) is a beautiful portrayal of one relationship and infinite possibilities.
5 stars “Ingenious and beautiful. Truly stellar.” Evening Standard 5 stars “Genius. Powerful. Pitch-perfect.” The Daily Telegraph 5 stars “Extraordinary. Dazzling.” Independent 5 stars “Stars shine across the universe.” Guardian 5 stars “It is brilliant. Extremely funny. Utterly heart-breaking.” Time Out
Nick Payne’s most recent play at the Royal Court was Wanderlust. His credits include One Day When We Were Young for Paines Plough at Sheffield Theatres and If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet at the Bush Theatre. He was the winner of the George Devine Award in 2009. Mike will direct Nick Payne’s play If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet for the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York in Autumn 2012 starring Jake Gyllenhaal.
Director Michael Longhurst’s productions include Remembrance Day at the Royal Court, Stovepipe for HighTide with the National Theatre and Bush Theatre, On The Beach as part of The Contingency Plan at the Bush Theatre, On The Record at the Arcola, dirty butterfly as winner of the Jerwood Directors Award at the Young Vic, 1 In 5 as part of Daring Pairings at Hampstead Theatre and Fringe First Award winner Guardians at the Edinburgh Festival.
Running time 1hr 10mins mins approx, no interval
Age guidance 14+
14 – 16 May ON SALE
New Victoria Theatre, Woking
0844 871 7645
19 – 23 May ON SALE
0151 709 4776
27 – 30 May ON SALE
Bristol Old Vic
0117 987 7877
2 – 6 June ON SALE
Nuffield Theatre, Southampton
023 8067 1771
9 – 13 June ON SALE 6 March
The Lowry. Salford Quays
0843 208 6000
16 – 20 June ON SALE
Cambridge Arts Theatre
23 – 27 June ON SALE
0844 871 7651
30 June – 4 July ON SALE
Theatre Royal Brighton
0844 871 7650
What audiences are saying about Constellations
Nick Payne’s Constellations was first staged in 2012 as part of the Royal Court’s Jerwood New Playwrights programme, supported by Jerwood Charitable Foundation.
Select a Date
Dates in May
|Thu 14 May||7:30pm||New Victoria Theatre, Woking||See website|
|Fri 15 May||7:30pm||New Victoria Theatre, Woking||See website|
|Sat 16 May||7:30pm||New Victoria Theatre, Woking||See website|
|Tue 19 May||7:30pm||Liverpool Playhouse||See website|
|Wed 20 May||5:30pm||Liverpool Playhouse||See website|
|Thu 21 May||1:30pm||Liverpool Playhouse||See website|
|Thu 21 May||7:30pm||Liverpool Playhouse||See website|
|Fri 22 May||7:30pm||Liverpool Playhouse||See website|
|Sat 23 May||2:00pm||Liverpool Playhouse||See website|
|Sat 23 May||7:30pm||Liverpool Playhouse||See website|
|Wed 27 May||7:30pm||Bristol Old Vic||See website|
|Thu 28 May||7:30pm||Bristol Old Vic||See website|
|Fri 29 May||7:30pm||Bristol Old Vic||See website|
|Sat 30 May||2:30pm||Bristol Old Vic||See website|
|Sat 30 May||7:30pm||Bristol Old Vic||See website|
Dates in June
|Tue 2 Jun||7:30pm||Nuffield Theatre, Southampton||See website||Book Online|
|Wed 3 Jun||7:30pm||Nuffield Theatre, Southampton||See website||Book Online|
|Thu 4 Jun||7:30pm||Nuffield Theatre, Southampton||See website||Book Online|
|Fri 5 Jun||7:30pm||Nuffield Theatre, Southampton||See website||Book Online|
|Sat 6 Jun||2:30pm||Nuffield Theatre, Southampton||See website||Book Online|
|Sat 6 Jun||7:30pm||Nuffield Theatre, Southampton||See website||Book Online|
|Tue 9 Jun||8:00pm||The Lowry||See website||Book Online|
|Wed 10 Jun||2:30pm||The Lowry||See website||Book Online|
|Wed 10 Jun||8:00pm||The Lowry||See website||Book Online|
|Thu 11 Jun||8:00pm||The Lowry||See website||Book Online|
|Fri 12 Jun||8:00pm||The Lowry||See website||Book Online|
|Sat 13 Jun||2:30pm||The Lowry||See website||Book Online|
|Sat 13 Jun||8:00pm||The Lowry||See website||Book Online|
|Tue 16 Jun||7:45pm||Cambridge Arts Theatre||See website||Book Online|
|Wed 17 Jun||7:45pm||Cambridge Arts Theatre||See website||Book Online|
|Thu 18 Jun||2:30pm||Cambridge Arts Theatre||See website||Book Online|
|Thu 18 Jun||7:45pm||Cambridge Arts Theatre||See website||Book Online|
|Fri 19 Jun||7:45pm||Cambridge Arts Theatre||See website||Book Online|
|Sat 20 Jun||2:30pm||Cambridge Arts Theatre||See website||Book Online|
|Sat 20 Jun||7:45pm||Cambridge Arts Theatre||See website||Book Online|
|Tue 23 Jun||7:30pm||Richmond Theatre||See website||Book Online|
|Wed 24 Jun||2:30pm||Richmond Theatre||See website||Book Online|
|Wed 24 Jun||7:30pm||Richmond Theatre||See website||Book Online|
|Thu 25 Jun||7:30pm||Richmond Theatre||See website||Book Online|
|Fri 26 Jun||7:30pm||Richmond Theatre||See website||Book Online|
|Sat 27 Jun||2:30pm||Richmond Theatre||See website||Book Online|
|Sat 27 Jun||7:30pm||Richmond Theatre||See website||Book Online|
|Tue 30 Jun||7:45pm||Theatre Royal Brighton||See website||Book Online|
Dates in July
|Wed 1 Jul||7:45pm||Theatre Royal Brighton||See website||Book Online|
|Thu 2 Jul||2:30pm||Theatre Royal Brighton||See website||Book Online|
|Thu 2 Jul||7:45pm||Theatre Royal Brighton||See website||Book Online|
|Fri 3 Jul||7:45pm||Theatre Royal Brighton||See website||Book Online|
|Sat 4 Jul||2:30pm||Theatre Royal Brighton||See website||Book Online|
|Sat 4 Jul||7:45pm||Theatre Royal Brighton||See website||Book Online|
Sold out Performances
Please see Dates and Tickets for each venues ticket prices
5 stars 14.01.15 The Guardian, Alexis Soloski
‘Remember that old David Ives sketch, The Sure Thing, about a courting couple repeating their meeting until it’s sufficiently cute? Constellations is like that. But sadder and sweeter and more real.’
Click here to read the full review. 4 stars 14.01.15 Time Out New York, Adam Feldman
Click here to read the full review. 4 stars 13.01.15 New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz
‘Gyllenhaal is laid-back and ever-genunine as the passive Roland. Wilson, a two-time Olivier Award winner, is sensual and irresistibly carefree — a perfect foil. Together, they have something elusive: combustible chemistry.’
Click here to read the full review. 4 stars 13.01.15 Financial Times, Brendan Lemon
‘eminently sensible and completely nonsensical.’
Click here to read the full review. 4 stars 13.01.15 USA Today, Elysa Gardner
‘Constellations […] will pull you in well before its 70 minutes have ended, leaving you shaken and stirred.’
Click here to read the full review. 3 stars 13.01.15 New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli
‘Rarely has quantum physics felt as romantic, as lively as it does in Broadway’s “Constellations.”’
Click here to read the full review. 5 stars The Sunday Times by Maxie Szalwinska, 29th January 2012
“We live with everything we’ve never and ever done,” says one of the characters in Constellations. Nick Payne’s wondrously supple new play keeps this thought in front of us, capturing the way different possibilities run underneath our lives like recorded-over videotape. In the first scene, the same girl meets the same boy not once, but again and again. Payne keeps replaying the initial off-kilter chat-up, as Marianne (Sally Hawkins), a bright, antsy cosmologist, sidles up to Roland (Rafe Spall) at a barbecue. The relationship he’s depicting isn’t linear, but exists as a jumble of variable outcomes. We can pick, mix and decide on our preferred ending. The 65-minute drama, which takes in beekeeping and quantum mechanics, announces its conceit — the idea of multiple universes coexisting — early on. The fugue-like, funny-mournful script also reflects on chance, choice and how destiny is always retrospective. As in Caryl Churchill’s human cloning play, A Number, science is anything but remote here. The trick the playwright pulls off is to bring a feather-light touch to weighty themes. A cluster of white balloons hovers above the stage in Michael Longhurst’s production, suggesting infinite worlds. Hawkins and Spall give warm, surprising turns as the couple whose happiness flares and goes out like a match. 5 stars The Mail On Sunday by Georgina Brown, 29th January 2012
White balloons bob around the entrance to the theatre and on the ceiling above the stage in Nick Payne’s small, beautiful and brilliant Constellations. Are they decorations for a wedding party, or atoms or cells?
All three and possibly much more, I suspect. For this is a love story that flirts playfully with serious ideas about physics and metaphysics, randomness, fate, free will and time. And then boldly wonders what we’re all doing here anyway.
If that makes Constellations sound like hard work, trust me, it’s nothing of the sort. It’s very funny and desperately sad and its intellectual and emotional dynamism sweeps you up and carries you along like a surfing wave. Seldom has a play felt so exhilarating.
Marianne is a quantum physicist.; Roalnd is a bee-keeper. in Michael Longhurst’s dazzling production, Sally Hawkins’ Marianne is a live-wire – quirky, perky and sparky – while Rafe Spall’s Roland is solid, gentle, calm and grounded, a humble drone to Marianne’s queen bee.
They meet at a friend’s barbequeue and so begins their love affair. At least, that’s one possibility. As Marianne explains: ‘In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever made or never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.’
Returning again and again to a starting point, Constellations rehearses alternative versions of the same scene, just as we all do in the echo chambers of our minds. Had Roland been in a relationship or not interested, or Marianne’s brain tumour proved benign or operable, things might have turned out very differently. or not?
The two actors bounce and dance around one another on the raised stage like opponents in a boxing ring, intensely alert. Constellations appropriately makes stars of both of them. 5 stars The Telegraph by Charles Spencer, 20th January 2012
I know it’s only January, but if I see a more ingenious, touching and intellectually searching play than Constellations this year, I will count myself very lucky.
Nick Payne’s drama lasts just over an hour but packs in more than most shows manage in three times that length. It is playful, intelligent and bursting with ideas, but also achieves a powerful undertow of emotion.
In earlier works such as Wanderlust and If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, Payne announced himself as a dramatist of rich humanity, vitality and promise. Here he makes a quantum leap with a work that can stand comparison with Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn and Caryl Churchill at their best.
In fact, quantum theory plays a big part in a piece that is also a boy-meets-girl romantic comedy which shades into something much sadder. Roland (Rafe Spall) is an easygoing chap who makes his living as a bee-keeper. At a barbecue he meets Marianne (Sally Hawkins), a warm, intelligent, and witty woman who works at Sussex University in the field of quantum cosmology. At one point in the play she describes how the theory of relativity, which “covers the sun, the moon and the stars”, is at odds with quantum mechanics, “which takes care of molecules, quarks and atoms”. A by-product of these apparently conflicting theories, she suggests, is that we could be part of a multiverse in which at any given moment several different outcomes can exist simultaneously.
The genius of the play is that it shows this theory in action. As the two characters meet in a succession of scenes, Payne repeatedly shows different ways in which their encounters could have turned out as a result of factors ranging from previous relationships to the precise words and tone of voice employed. The piece expands into an investigation of free will and the huge role that chance plays in our lives.
All of which might sound academic, but we come to care for both these likeable people deeply. The writing is as funny and humane as it is intellectually rigorous, and tells us as much about honey bees and the blessings of love as it does about cutting-edge scientific theory.
But the often playful mood darkens as mortality enters the scenario, and Payne addresses the blunt fact that whatever theories we happen to hold about the universe, one day we are all going to die, and very possibly at a time when we are least ready for it.
Michael Longhurst directs an illuminatingly lucid production in an auditorium magically filled with floating white balloons that somehow conjure the wonder and the possibilities the play suggests. Sally Hawkins brings both glowing humanity and deep poignancy to the stage as the intelligent scientist who discovers both love and loss, while Rafe Spall manages the tricky task of making an ordinary, decent bloke completely compelling.
This is a pitch-perfect production of an astonishingly fine new play and it must surely have an extended life beyond the cramped confines of the Theatre Upstairs. 5 stars The Indepedent by Paul Taylor, 20th January 2012
Not since Mike Bartlett’s Cock, so to speak, have I been so exhilarated by a new play premiered at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs.
As I sat through the extraordinary 65 minutes of Nick Payne’s Constellations — performed with uncanny brilliance by Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins — this sense of slightly incredulous elation was accompanied by the sinking feeling that, as a critic, one would be hard put to begin to do justice to the dazzling way it creates it own rules, while at the same time being wise enough not to jettison the old rule book either.
Cubist visual art crunches together many moments in time within the instantaneous stillness of a picture. Here it’s as if a magic wand has been waved over such a work so that it comes alive, the multiple variations elapsing elastically in the constantly re-angled present tense of stunningly well-deployed stage time.
That description, though, might, misleadingly make the piece sound like hip, updated J B Priestley or Ayckbourn, both of whom have explored the dramatic power of flirting with the the alternative possibilities implicit in every moment. A smartass wag might jest that Payne does not understand the dramaturgical principle of draft-exclusion or, to put it slightly more positively, that he has a strong susceptibility to drafts, given the purposeful prevarication of Constellations and its refusal to discriminate amongst the host of hypothetical variants through which the couple in this two-hander travel. The wag would be wrong.
There are two things that, to my mind, make the piece work on your pulses as well as on your synapses. One is that the link with quantum multiverse theory comes across as deeply felt, unlike, say, the shallow, opportunistic use Charlotte Jones made of string theory in the very overrated Humble Boy. The second is that real pain (no pun intended) seems to be dragged like barbed wire through the guts of these often hilariously juxtaposed variations.
Yes, but who are these people and what do they do and say? I’m loth to reveal too much because I don’t want to spoil it for you. It involves bees, barbecues, picking people up at dance classes, brain tumours, dialogue that develops the haunting quality of a refrain in a story told of out of sequence again and again. Staged on a central, hexagonally tied rectangle, Michael Longhurst’s superb production (how on earth did they rehearse this?) features two performances that are miracles of timing as they dart in and out of knowing inverted commas and effect subtles glissade between beautifully calculated in-on-the knowingness and nakedly unfeigned feeling. There are little lapses from its own high standard but a wonderful achievement all round. 4 stars Time Out by Caroline McGinn, 24th January 2012
Scientific concept literature isn’t new: Tom Stoppard was doing it brilliantly long before numerous apocalyptic examples picketed the runway to the millennium. Nick Payne’s new play follows the basic formula: take girl and boy; synthesise with scientific metaphor; insert disturbing thesis; reheat, and serve!
But there’s nothing undercooked about Michael Longhurst’s excellent, gripping production. And Payne’s play, despite having obviously done its quantum physics and beekeeping homework, is funny, tender and startlingly original.
It’s some achievement to dramatise the theory of parallel universes in 70 minutes, but Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins, playing numerous subtly different versions of central characters Roland and Marianne, are the stars here.
‘Constellations’ feeds a romance story, iteratively, through dozens of possible choices, permutations and lives. It works because of fine acting and because it is also grounded in the ups and downs of dating, sex, love and death: personal and universal moments that everyone can laugh and wince at.
Spall displays a virtuosic talent for comic understatement as Roland, giving us several nice-but-dim variations on his drone-voiced theme, each one funnier than the last. In Longhurst’s ingenious in-the-round production, Spall’s Roland is a great shock-absorber for Hawkins’s febrile, quick-witted Marianne, a cosmologist who chats him up at a mutual friend’s barbecue -using the same line in numerous dimensions, to wildly various and comical effect.
The thesis of ‘Constellations’ is that life is a random aggregation of molecules, love a happy accident and death inevitable. It is an expansively big idea that cools this tense, stylish drama a shade too rapidly. With so many playwrights struggling to graduate from the school of Pinter, it’s stimulating to see one standing confidently on the shoulders of Tom Stoppard.
Payne’s play, which repeats questions about ‘choice’ and ‘control’, falls short of the elegantly sustained ‘Arcadia’. But Tom Scutt’s design illuminates its themes in a dark space roofed by milky balloons which suggest white cells, stars or flocks of atoms. Move over Brian Cox: this is charismatic theatre which makes quantum physics sexy. 4 stars Financial Times by Sarah Hemming, 23rd January 2012
There’s quite a bit of time-bending on London stages at the moment. At the Lyric Hammersmith, Abi Morgan’s Lovesong shows us the same couple, old and young, simultaneously; meanwhile, in the Royal Court, Nick Payne’s spellbinding new play takes one relationship and juggles multiple time-lines and possibilities.
You might not expect a play about quantum mechanics and string theory to be moving, but this one is. Payne focuses on the pivotal moments of one relationship and plays and replays them in slightly different ways with varying results. It is a physical way of exploring on-stage the intriguing idea that we might live in a multiverse, with multiple paths shooting out from each instant. As Marianne, a quantum cosmologist, suggests to Roland, it is possible that “at any given moment, several outcomes can co-exist simultaneously”. Payne examines the emotional consequences of the idea of parallel universes and the implications for free will and choice.
So we watch as they meet at a barbecue and Marianne’s awkward chat-up line leads either into a cul-de-sac or into a shared future, depending on which path Roland has taken hitherto. We see a moment when one of them confesses to infidelity, played slightly differently each time. We see them dealing with bad news, each encounter subtly altered. A trauma they will have to face keeps resurfacing throughout, throwing other moments in the relationship into relief. It sounds arid and opaque – in fact, in the hands of director Michael Longhurst and actors Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins, it proves spry, funny and ultimately very moving.
Spall and Hawkins are remarkable, rising to the fiendish challenge of navigating a script that is inevitably repetitious and circular. That they remember it all is impressive; that they make you care about the characters even more so. With just the tiniest nuance of body movement or intonation, they deliver the repeated scenes differently, so that you see the impact that even the slightest change of tone might have.
On Tom Scutt’s simple set, a dark rectangle beneath a firmament of white balloons, the two circle each other like boxers or dancers, complementing the play’s intellectual structure physically, by constantly changing the angle and space between them. And yet they keep a through-line and a sense of character: he, spontaneous, easy-going and warm; she, intense, spiky, but fragile. Ultimately the play emerges as a touchingly original study of a relationship and a meditation on that all too familiar refrain: “if only”.
4 stars The Metro by Claire Alfree, 23rd January 2012
Nick Payne’s tricksy, lovely little play riffs on mind-expanding ideas about free will, faith and time for 65 minutes, pusyhing its potential to the limit.
Marianne and Roland meet, have sex, don’t have sex, get together, split up, meet again. He is a beekeeper who envies the singualr focus of a bee; she is an astrophysics academic who understands string theory and multiple universes. Their relationship is stretched apart and put back together in a dizzying sequence of scenes that consider the forces that determine individual experience within a single, elegant, dramatic conceit.
Director Michael Longhurst coaches pitch-perfect performances from Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins, who give a heartbeat to a relationship that initially feels theoretical but by the end is anything but. At the same time, the play offers a witty parrallel comment on stories themselves and the different ways of telling them, in a nod to the way a play can change meaning depending on the choices made by those involved. If this all sounds a bit abstract that’s because to say too much would give away the beauty of this play. Small, but perfectly formed. 4 stars What’s On Stage by Michael Coveney, 20th January 2012
Here’s an absolute delight, a little gem of a play by Nick Payne, a playwright who’s been bubbling under at the Royal Court for a while, performed to perfection by Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall on a simple raised square platform under a night sky of white balloons.
Michael Longhurst’s deft, highly skilled production, designed by Tom Scutt, is only 70 minutes long, but dense with affection and longing, pain and regret, as beekeeper Roland (Spall) and Sussex University cosmologist Marianne (Hawkins) meet at a barbecue, have an affair, separate, meet up again and face life, death and the universe with, on the whole, humorous equanimity.
Scenes are replayed with different emphases, and in parallel scenarios, or universes, at first flippantly offering alternative versions of the truth but increasingly suggesting a world of preferences and second chances. Marianne has a dying mother and occasional symptoms herself of neurological disorder and disease.
Spending time together becomes spending a lifetime together, partly because of circumstances, partly because of a dawning realisation that, with the passing of time, time itself continues on its way without us.
This could sound winsome; indeed, the show suggests to me one or two recent toe-curling little musicals rigorously overhauled by Caryl Churchill. But the repeat playing of a proposal scene from literally different angles, or the rapid cross-questioning of outside affections, only deepens an original study in love and friendship.
Against the odds, the overall effect is touching and beautiful. Hawkins has a wonderful way of spilling emotional beans while holding herself in check with a comic shrug of deprecation; while Spall’s Roland, solid and considerate, receives a serious education in listening and adjusting, riding Marianne’s outbursts with speed and sharpness.
The New Yorker by John Lahr, February 16th 2012
It’s rare these days, at any time really, to encounter a play which owes nothing to theatrical influences and which exists as a singular astonishment, at once eloquent and mysterious but which nonetheless articulates within its own idiosyncratic idiom something that touches an audience as real. Three pathfinding contemporary plays come to mind: Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie,” Heathcote Williams’s “AC/DC,” and Joe Orton’s “What the Butler Saw.” Now I can add the young British playwright Nick Payne, whose brilliant, witty two-hander “Constellations” has just ended a successful month’s run at the Royal Court but will surely be back soon by popular demand.
“Why should the universe have a purpose…there is a considerable grandeur, I think, in the presence of our spectacularly majestic universe just hanging there, wholly without purpose,” an epigram to the play—from Peter Atkins’s 2011 “On Being”—reads. Here, under a canopy of white variegated helium balloons that look like a galaxy of stars, Payne conjures the notion of a “multiverse” where “several outcomes can coexist simultaneously,” as Marianne (the petite, piquant Sally Hawkins) says. She happens to be a theoretical physicist who is in the process of being seduced by Roland (the charming Rafe Spall). She goes on: “In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever made and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.” “This is genuinely turning me on,” Roland says.
The concept also seems to turn on the audience, which goes with the game and understands that every shifting scene and posture indicates “a change in the universe,” as the stage direction reads. The play, superbly directed Michael Longhurst, is only seventy minutes long, but it’s a wholly satisfying and complete emotional journey. On a black square in the round, the actors fairly canter through Payne’s quirky, oblique dialogue, which is written to a digital age’s sense of speed; nonetheless, “Constellations” manages to speak with weight and meaning. The play, which is a sort of Cubist chronicle, moves from pickup to seduction, to marriage, to illness (cancer), to imminent death. The well-judged dialogue, at once terse and trenchant, finds its own characteristic poetry.
Trying to console Roland, Marianne says,
L-listen to me, listen to me. The basic laws of physics—the b-basic laws of physics don’t have a past and a present. Time is irrelevant at the level of a-atoms and molecules. It’s symmetrical
We have all the time we’ve always had.
You’ll still have all our time.
There’s not going to be any more or less of it.
Once I’m gone.
I can’t say I grasped for certain what the play means. But I do know the real thing when I see it. And Nick Payne, a playwright previously unknown to me, is at the beginning of a great career
New York Times by Matt Wolf, 24th January 2012
“Constellations” is the celestial title for the nearest I’ve come across in ages to a play that feels heaven-sent. One wants to say more, of course, but in some ways, one really shouldn’t, since the element of surprise is crucial both to the impact of Nick Payne’s script and of Michael Longhurst’s deeply felt production. The show looks quite likely to be the town’s new hot ticket as it hurtles toward a close at the Royal Court’s tiny Theatre Upstairs.
Taking its cue from an earlier Court entry, Caryl Churchill’s “A Number,” Mr. Payne pays passing homage to various other texts as well across a 65-minute evening that nonetheless manages to seem entirely fresh. Even Tom Scutt’s scenic design adds to the deepening exhilaration, a cluster of balloons gathering other meanings and points of reference — a molecular galaxy, for one — before the play lands at its crushingly ironic finish. And its cast of two re-emerge to soak in the cheers from the audience that are their due.
Rafe Spall plays a beekeeper and Sally Hawkins a physicist in a relationship chronicled via a series of clipped scenes that often revise and amend one another. What can’t be rewritten are such truths as mortality in a play that could itself be titled “A Brief History of Time,” if Stephen Hawking had not got there first. Mr. Spall is as understated in his empathy and compassion as Ms. Hawkins is heart-stopping in her shifts of mood, the glistening paradox of her performance evident in the lucidity with which her character’s gathering inarticulacy is conveyed.
The play ends when many another would barely be getting started, and with not a wasted gesture or word. Nor, on opening night, did I witness many a dry eye.
The Arts Desk by Carole Woddis, 23rd January 2012
Nick Payne has already made quite a mark. In 2009 he won the George Devine award for Most Promising Playwright with the intriguingly entitled If There Is I Haven’t Found it Yet at the Bush. Wanderlust followed at the Royal Court and now with his second Court commission he’s come up with bees and multi-universe theories, love and death.
It’s funny how bees and quantum physics seem to go hand in hand. Charlotte Jones’ Humble Boy buzzed along similar lines with huge success a decade ago. So it proves again in Payne’s dazzlingly acted play – beautifully directed by Michael Longhurst – about the infinite possibilities of life. Underlying its jaunty exchanges is the dark unanswered question: exactly what is our purpose in life? Payne’s answer – cool, uncompromising, unsentimental – is that as atoms, molecules, we are at the mercy of randomness. We whiz about. And then we’re dead. In between, the possibilitiesfor the direction our lives may take at any one time are infinite. We think we have choice, control. Payne, in a series of concentrically repeating cycles of dialogue punctures such delusions with a scalpel so delicate you hardly realise the knife is going in.
This is not a play for those who like their theatre neat and linear
It’s all done by clever sleight of hand, if sometimes reminiscent of a drama school exercise: let’s take this line and spin it through three or four different situations – give it to me when you’re feeling drunk/ sober/angry/playful/defensive/assertive. Sally Hawkins quirky, spring-heeled Marianne and Rafe Spall’s amiable, gentle Roland meet by chance at a friend’s barbecue. Marianne jabs and feints at Roland like a light-welterweight, never quite sure when to go in close. Roland, it turns out, is an urban beekeeper, keeping his hives in dustbin liners on the roof of his flat. Marianne, amused, guiltily confesses that she sometimes buys honey from Tesco (pictured below). Roland is not put off. On the contrary, his discovery that Marianne is a cosmologist who sits in front of a computer all day – “inputting data. Quantum cosmological modelling. Not very interesting” – is turned on. Queen bee and drone steadily work their way into their anointed, predetermined places.
Payne is too subtle to be quite so crude. His interest, it seems, is elsewhere. “In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes,” Marianne tells Roland. The mind boggles. And here Payne plays either his most powerful card or undermines his argument, according to your perspective. For Marianne has other things on her mind. Literally. A brain tumour. The death of her mother. One particular exchange, repeated several times throughout the play’s 65 minutes, at first apparently random in meaning, ultimately becomes all too pungently clear. It is one of Payne’s most moving devices – a deft exploration of the life force and its precariousness – if veering towards the melodramatic.
Highly entertaining and with an ear to the way that today’s young communicate in a series of oddball, indirect, indeed often abstract lines, this is not a play for those who like their theatre neat and linear. It is chaotic, scatter-gun, balefully comic and offering infinite possibilities for interpretation. Payne’s methodology may not entirely convince, but as a reflection of modern life and relationships, Constellations is beguiling, not least because it allows Hawkins and Spall to give an acting masterclass, to spin on a dime from intimacy to fracture, from jokiness to unease.
Tom Scutt’s design gives this scudding love story the perfect metaphorical setting – fulling the auditorium with white balloons, surrounding an empty, slightly raised square stage. It suggests at once the cosmos and party-going and indisputably, as time goes on, a boxing ring.
The Observer by Susannah Clapp, 22nd January 2012
Every now and then the Royal Court does this. It throws up a small-cast, depth-charge production that makes bigger dramas look over-stuffed and under-nourished. It did so metaphysically with Caryl Churchill’s A Number and emotionally with Mike Bartlett’s Cock. It has done so again with Nick Payne’s wiry new play.
Constellations is a love story that investigates ideas about time. Or it’s a look at theories about time that takes the form of a love story. It tells us that we may have no such thing as free will, but leaves its audience to make up its own mind. Following the lead given 14 years ago by Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, in which a scientific theory is demonstrated in the structure of the play that discusses it, Constellations embodies its doubts and questions. It quizzes the notion of destiny by giving alternative versions of every scene: each episode is re-enacted with variations and a different conclusion.
The risk of desiccation, of programmatic experimentalism is knocked on the head by force of feeling and a first-rate production. Payne’s dialogue is idiomatic, often comic, and Michael Longhurst’s direction is nippy and precise. Running at just over an hour, the action is set by designer Tom Scutt on a square stage surrounded by the audience. As they circle around each other (time is symmetrical, the play counterintuitively instructs us) the two characters – one a physicist, one a bee-keeper – often look like combatants in a boxing ring. This is an unusual ring, though: its floor is covered in hexagons, as if the actors were dancing over a honeycomb.
The really transporting aspect of the evening is that Constellations is performed by real stars. Sally Hawkins, more familiar from Mike Leigh’s movies and from television’s Tipping the Velvet, is rarely seen on stage. She makes you wonder why. Delicate and fiery, she moves round the stage like a light-footed schoolgirl, but drops a wisecrack like a miniature Mae West. She, the physicist of the couple (hurrah for non-predictable casting), is both precise and emotionally high-voltage. Rafe Spall – the bee-keeper – is her perfect opposite. Relaxed and loose-limbed, he goes from slow-moving amiability to occasional doltishness, gradually inflecting his expression of mild bewilderment.
Approaching Constellations along the corridor leading to the auditorium, you might think you were in for a celebration: white balloons dangle from the ceiling. You’d be wrong. Balloons also crowd the ceiling of the theatre, and it’s a tribute to the production that these come to suggest different things: at first, a galactic jostle and later a cluster of cells. At the end of the evening they carry a significance similar to that of a ghost white bicycle left at the scene of an accident.
Independent on Sunday by Kate Bassett, 22nd January 2012
Constellations, by Nick Payne, plays far more arresting games with time. In this experimental two-hander – a darkening romantic comedy – Sally Hawkins’s Marianne is a theoretical physicist who, on an early date, tries to explain the notion of a quantum multiverse – where all the choices you’ve ever (or never) made exist simultaneously in a vast ensemble of parallel universes.
What the playwright does is apply that to Marianne’s on-off love affair with Rafe Spall’s Roland, a mildly blokey bee-keeper. Radically disordering the linear narrative, their nervously jokey getting-together and their harrowed partings are played and replayed with numerous variations.
Maybe there could be fewer repeats, and we’ve had bees and string theory before in Charlotte Jones’s Humble Boy (2001). However, Michael Longhurst’s in-the-round production – on a bare, black stage under an eerie galaxy of white balloons – is taut and intensely touching. Hawkins and Spall spin on a sixpence between charming social comedy and heartbreaking tragedy, faced with which Marianne tries to comfort Roland, suggesting that, at the level of atoms, death really has no dominion: “We have all the time we’ve always had” – together in perpetuity.
Variety by David Benedict, 20th January 2012
The phrase “emotionally satisfying” is rarely seen alongside that of “experimental drama” — which makes Nick Payne’s arresting, intelligent new play “Constellations” all the more exciting. Michael Longhurst’s exacting direction elicits thrillingly precise performances from Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall in this quiet, two-actor relationship drama that shifts imperceptibly from cleverness into true profundity.
Playwrights attempting to address philosophical themes commonly create characters whose jobs supposedly shed light upon a play’s intellectual concerns. Explication of governing ideas is usually accomplished via lengthy explanatory discussions a la Tom Stoppard. What’s remarkable about “Constellations” is that Payne never stoops to that. Instead, he embodies his fascinating ideas in the play’s actual technique.
A rapid, sharp succession of diamond-bright opening exchanges on designer Tom Scutt’s neat, bare platform sets the prevailing tone. In a fast succession of repeated snapshots punctuated by snap lighting changes, Marianne (Hawkins) meets and flirts with Roland (Spall) at a party. The meeting is immediately re-played several times, each with a slightly different outcome: hopeless, helpless, amusing, embarrassing, arousing.
The conscious absurdity of contrasting repetitions creates a prevailing comic air — with the audiences ahead of the characters and yet surprised by the characters’ shifting responses to situations. And as their jousting leads audiences deeper into the casual, then serious, relationship, Payne holds firm to his structure of constantly re-angled fast-cut dialogue.
This initially feels like enjoyable but technical trickery. In fact it’s a perfectly dramatic illustration of the notion of different universes co-existing, a theory of quantum mechanics that is the area in which Marianne works. Although she fleetingly describes these ideas, it’s their embodiment in the way the audience directly experiences the play moment by moment that is so effective and ultimately so affecting.
Payne is far too compassionate a writer to be content with showing off a writerly idea. Instead, he pulls the rug out from the beneath the audience by mining deeper emotional territory.
His play presents life as a succession of tiny choices, but the mood shifts as Marianne is overtaken by an event in her life that it would be ruinous to give away. It does, however, demand that she make one very bold choice. This has seismic emotional repercussions for the characters, but also catapaults audiences into a complete understanding of the very nature of choice.
All of this is achieved with breathtaking lightness of touch. Payne’s approach is quirky enough to make Roland a beekeeper but his writing is not in the least whimsical. And everything is grounded by the meticulous work of the two actors.
Hawkins brings a remarkable emotional translucence to Marianne, a role that could easily boil over. But helmer Longhurst keeps her on a far more eloquent simmer, his tight control of the arc of individual scenes infinitely benefiting the play as a whole.
Marianne’s gradually darkening experience is both grounded and counterbalanced by Spall’s wonderfully calm Roland. As he showed in Payne’s award-winning debut “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet,” Spall has the rare gift of being able to express the clear intent of every beat of a script whether he’s underpinning or contradicting his dialogue.
A cloud-like collection of white balloons hangs over the in-the-round set. Together they conjure a sense of limitless possibility and childlike hope — both of which course through “Constellations.” At 65 minutes, it’s not an immediately obvious commercial possibility. But thanks in no small part to Longhurst’s beautiful production, future life undoubtedly beckons for this subtly powerful drama.
New Scientist by Sumit Paul-Choudhury, 26th January 2012
A man and a woman meet for the first time at a barbeque.
Then they meet for the first time again.
Nick Payne’s new play, Constellations, is not so much a tale of star-crossed as universe-crossing lovers. Marianne, a vivacious cosmologist, explains as much to the amiable Roland when, shortly after that stuttering first meeting, she invites him back to her flat.
Or at least, she does in one universe. In others, her initial conversational gambit has been abruptly snubbed, politely declined, carefully deflected and, eventually, warmly accepted. And the invitation to the flat ends sadly, upsettingly, angrily and joyously. The characters know only the instance they’re appearing in; the audience sees it all. One moment, the pair seems destined to drift apart. A dazzling flash and they start all over again – and this time, the outcome is different.
As Marianne says: “In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes”. That’s about it for the hardcore physics, because Constellations is not so much interested in explaining the science as it is in the exploring the human questions that the science raises. If you truly accept that you inhabit a multiverse in which “everything that can happen, does happen” then what real significance do your choices have?
We watch Marianne and Roland evolve, via a kind of punctuated equilibrium, from strangers to sweethearts to soulmates. Their false starts, mix-ups and setbacks are the episodes of a superior romantic comedy, unfolding not over time, but across probability – what might have been, reified. To describe these in any detail would be to rob the play of its power; suffice to say they are mostly mundane events made fascinating by the many what-ifs presented for every what-is.
You might expect these repeated variations on a scene to become tiresome: a novelty that quickly turns into bloodless experimentalism. But Payne’s command of his characters is so complete as to maintain our absolute belief that we are always following the same, eminently likeable people, even as their emotions run the gamut from tenderness to hate. Only their circumstances differ, and often not by very much. Sometimes it is only a choice of words, or a tone of voice, that matters.
There’s still the potential for this material to be handled clumsily by the wrong hands, but Payne’s superb writing is shown off to its best advantage by the Royal Court’s debut production of his play. Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall are spell-binding in their roles as Marianne and Roland, their rapport compelling and consistent no matter which scenario they enact. A flotilla of spherical white balloons (universes?) bobs over the otherwise bare stage; audience members surround it on all sides, creating an intimate atmosphere.
That intimacy, initially the source of voyeuristic delight, becomes almost unbearably intrusive as matters take a darker turn in the final third of the play’s sixty-five minutes. The endless possibilities of Marianne and Roland’s new romance collapse until they only have a single, tragic choice left; and we are left to wonder what that solitary option really means.
Hilarious, heart-breaking and very human, Constellations deserves to be seen by far more people than can attend its short run at the Royal Court. I would bet that before long it will join the ranks of Arcadia and Copenhagen as a classic of science-inspired theatre. See it, and the next time a new acquaintance asks you to go for a drink, the memory of this brief, beautiful play will remind you that everything, and nothing, may be at stake.
New York Times by Ben Brantley, 31st January 2012
Some plays are worth defying claustrophobia for. As a capacity audience crowded onto the benches that surrounded the rectangular stage of the tiny black-box space of the Royal Court Jerwood Theater Upstairs, I could feel my chest tightening and my breath growing shorter. It didn’t help that layers of white balloons covered (and lowered) the ceiling in molecular formations. I had to admonish myself, as I do in such circumstances, “Theater critics do not faint on the job – except, on rare occasion, metaphorically.”
And then Nick Payne’s “Constellations” began, and the room – and my chest – expanded almost immediately. My chest stayed regulation size, but the room seemed to keep getting bigger during the 70 minutes of this two-character drama, which is acted with startling freshness by Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall. This was altogether appropriate to a work about the limitlessness of physics and the enclosing limitations of human existence.
That sounds highfalutin, I know. It’s true that “Constellations” makes fluent and casual use of the notions of string theory, quantum cosmological modeling and general relativity, among others. But this latest work by Mr. Payne, who came out of the Royal Court Young Writers Programme, is quite simple in its complexity. Or complex in its simplicity. Anyway, people with a penchant for remembering, re-remembering and reimagining their own lives – and I imagine that’s most of you – will see themselves reflected here, as if in a wall of multiform mirrors.
The premise of “Constellations” is storybook, soap-opera basic, up to a point. Boy meets girl. Or, rather, girl meets boy. Or meets boy girl, or girl boy meets. Get the idea? The different possibilities of a first encounter between two people who are (or are not) destined to be together are played out in fuguelike variations that Bach might have admired. Sometimes this occurs with just the tiniest rearrangements of words and emphases and inflections.
The same process is applied to subsequent meetings, partings, conversations and confrontations between Marianne (Ms. Hawkins), a physicist, and Roland (Mr. Spall), a beekeeper. He says, she says. Then the lights shift, the postures change, and he says and she says again, but differently. And at every step, you’re aware of how differently still things might have happened.
This is not an entirely original formula. David Ives used it as the recipe for a memorable comic sketch about a first date in his “All in the Timing.” Tom Stoppard has deployed principles of physics stylishly and repeatedly in time-bending dramas like “Arcadia.” And of course there’s everybody’s favorite movie about a life repeated, “Groundhog Day,” the 1993 film by Harold Ramis.
But “Constellations” gets into your head and under your skin with an immediacy that sometimes tickles and often hurts. As it traces what turns out to be a fairly complete arc of a relationship, the play suggests the parallel paths we construct in our minds when thinking about how events happened or might have happened or might yet happen, and the ache that accompanies such thoughts.
Much of the efficacy of “Constellations,” directed with fluidity and confidence by Michael Longhurst, relies on its performers’ being able to summon each shift in mood and stance with equal spontaneity and conviction. When you’re right on top of a cast, as you necessarily are at space like the Jerwood, falseness and self-consciousness register fast and damagingly. Ms. Hawkins, best known for her role in Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky” (2008), and Mr. Spall never slip out of the moment, which is remarkable when you think of how many refractions a moment has here.