Constellations is a love story with a cosmic twist.
Roland (Ivanno Jeremiah), is a beekeeper, and Marianne (Sheila Atim), is a physicist whose work has taught her that the universe is infinite, and so rejects a linear concept of time; instead, there are infinite futures available, with our actions determining what future we end up in.
It is this idea of infinite futures simultaneously playing out that informs the structure of Nick Payne’s Constellations. In the opening scene, Roland and Marianne meet at a barbecue. The same scene is played out five times. The first four times Marianne’s anecdote about licking elbows falls flat and a spark never ignites between her and Roland, but on the final iteration of the scene, the magic intangible formula of attraction has ignited, and the love story of Roland and Marianne begins.
The remainder of the show plays out in much the same way: the same scenes are performed by Roland and Marianne until the magic chemical reaction occurs that enables their relationship to progress. Indeed, such a formula could get boring very quickly, but Jeremiah and Atim so engagingly transform and renegotiate their characters and motivations with each scene iteration that the audience is left hysterical at the variety of characters they come to embody and the variety of ways they find to say the same lines. Indeed, it was almost like watching a drama exercise, with two virtuosic actors transforming the meaning of their lines with ease as they experimented with motive, tonality, and body language.
Part of me wondered whether Jeremiah and Atim were improvising in the moment, or if the scenes were rehearsed to be performed that way – a testament to the naturalism of their performances, but also a point that made me want to come back and watch the performances of the other actor pairs performing in this Donmar production.
From the outset, Tom Scutt’s set design, Lee Curran’s lighting design, and David McSeveney’s sound design – worked effectively and cohesively. A canopy of balloons hung over the stage, reflecting the more playful elements of Marianne and Roland’s love story. Between each scene, the balloons would sporadically light up – reminding one of the Constellations of the play’s title – simultaneous to the sound of popping, effectively bookmarking each scene. On the more sombre flashforwards, the balloons were illuminated in a warmer amber light, effectively separating these scenes, and the seemingly unavoidable fate of Marianne and Roland, from the more playful scenes of their progressing relationship.
Perhaps, however, with the scale of the themes addressed by the play – the unpredictability of love, the questioning of free will, the challenging of the conception of linear time – the production design might be considered underwhelming. Perhaps the problem was that the set, lighting, and sound design were impressive from the outset, but never built up to anything more. Indeed, there might have been an opportunity to use production design to greater emphasise how small humans are in this massive, expansive universe, which we can’t control, and which we don’t entirely understand.
On the other hand, perhaps such design choices would have distracted from the humanity of Nick Payne’s play: the fact that, at its core, it’s a story of the weird, unpredictability of people, and how random the process is by which we find those people who we end up not being able to live without. And, on this human level, the play excelled – fundamentally, as a result of the outstanding, and, by turns, hilarious and heartfelt, performance of its actors. It’s for this reason that the performance concluded with a rapturous standing ovation, and it’s for this reason that I recommend you buy your tickets ASAP before the shows sell out.
Constellations runs at The Vaudeville Theatre until 12th September 2021. Find out more and book tickets here.