I admire actors who use very few or absolutely no props on stage. Their words are all the audience needs: the spectator’s imagination flows best when the mind is focused on what is spoken. Michael Longhurst’s direction of Nick Payne’s latest play Constellations presents two individuals in our contemporary world, using nothing but their bodies and words to tell a story that mixes joy, surprise, confusion and utter sadness.
This is a play that, although it seems split up into sequences, some marked by different lighting tones, doesn’t seem to be easily rehearsed in split parts. It tells the story of Marianne and Roland, two people like you and me, who meet, fall in love, separate, get back together and are, we assume, eventually separated by life’s tragedy. Marianne is a quantum physicist at the University of Sussex, as we hear more than once, and Roland is a bee keeper who makes a living in London. I could probably recite some of the words used by the characters, as some of their dialogues appear more than once in the play. They are repeated, sometimes ten times, in many different tones and show a multitude of statuses. The play is obsessed with whether, like the universe and its multiple physical possibilities, our lives would be completely different if we took slightly different routes at every crossroads we meet – which is virtually every second: do I say “yes” or do I say “no”? Will he understand what I mean if I stay quiet or shall I express myself at the risk of sounding patronising? I must note that in this play, the many different scenarios end up leading to the same ending. These possibilities are beautiful to observe but unfortunately, in life, once a word has been spoken, it can no longer be taken back. Life goes on and destiny happens.
At the same time, these very words, although so important, escape our mouths and are dust… no, not even! Just air. Empty air following a sentence. If you have not been heard, the system breaks down.
I believe I would have enjoyed seeing this intimate and sometimes breathless play directly at the Royal Court, as the Duke of York’s marks a true separation between the actors and the audience, as West End theatres do.
I was delighted to hear that in fact, Rafe Spall was not unknown to me, as he appeared as the dumb Will Shakespeare in Anonymous. In Constellations, all you want to do to Rafe Spall is hug him. He looks like a tall and protective friend. I conclude from this contradiction that Spall is definitely someone who completely dives into his character: his modernity and natural ways showed that he truly owned his character who is simply a sweet Londoner, not too confident, but not too shy.
Sally Hawkins, known to me through Happy-go-Lucky, was also very natural, light and delicate. Some of the scenes seemed almost improvised, which shows how seriously both actors worked on the characters’ sincerity. One quote was completely out of place in Hawkins’s mouth: “I’ve eaten too many sweets, I had better watch my weight” (more or less) – the actress is so thin that I am sure I wasn’t the only person in the audience frowning at these words.
After hundreds of years of playwriting, it is fascinating to see how artists can still ask that classic question about the meaning of life in new ways. Marianne envies the infinite possibilities of stars and Roland wishes he could simply live like the bees he keeps, who are born and die without having to ask any questions about the meaning of their death and what they will do when their partner dies of a brain tumor. In the end, we are in a circle we cannot escape but need to try to accept; without it, we would not think, write things up, produce shows and have the chance to see such beautiful and heartwarming plays.