REVIEW: Constellations

Bees meet String Theory, with surprising results for barbeques everywhere

Cambridge constellations Theatre

Any play with an ‘Intimacy Coach’ (Clara van Wel) has to be worth seeing, I figured. 

Perhaps I could learn something. In any case, the triple proposition of gentle piano, quantum mechanics, and fights seemed an eclectic enough mix to convince me to leave college and head to the ADC under the depressingly starless night sky.

It’s a very minimalist production, and were it not for the grand piano I could see ‘Constellations’ being more at home in the Corpus Playroom. Such minimalist staging, however, belies a less-than-minimal plot. Physicist Marianne (Ella Duffy) has a chance meeting with beekeeper Roland (Ed Limb) at a barbeque. They immediately hit it off, and wind up getting married and living a wonderful life – at least until Marianne becomes ill.

Of course, that’s only one version of the story. For the purposes of the play we live in a multiverse, the theoretical physics of which are somewhat languidly explained by Marianne using two pints of lager in a Brian Cox-esque ‘making complex quantum mechanics trendy’ kinda way. Therefore, there are just as many permutations of the story where Roland and Marianne don’t hit it off at the barbeque.

Ella Duffy as Marianne

Ella Duffy as Marianne

There are versions where they don’t fight, versions where Marianne doesn’t get ill, and versions where she does, but opts for different forms of treatment. This is initially confusing, as they repeat similar variants of the same scene over and over again, but once you understand the play’s multiverse-hopping shenanigans it becomes immensely engaging and is wielded as a powerful narrative weapon by the end of the play.

Obviously, this has wider repercussions for narrative more generally; whenever we read any book or see any play, the end result of that story is a culmination of a series of actions and choices that could easily have gone any other way, and ‘Constellations’ plays on this idea of opening and closing narrative doors with considerable deftness and intelligence. In doing so, it requires an immense emotional range from its actors; having to act a scene where a marriage proposal is rejected followed immediately by a scene where the intimacy coaching clearly paid off and the proposal is successful is certainly difficult, but generally both actors coped well, growing in confidence as the play went on.

Bumbling Roland adds humour to some scenes and violence to others, yet ‘Constellations’ always seems supremely in control of seriously challenging emotional content; not only are there an infinite number of potential scenes to act out, but some of those scenes run chronologically backwards, too. The overall effect is mesmeric, as we’re forced simultaneously to focus in on a human drama, and zoom out and take in the exponentially increasing possibilities of the multiverse.

Duffy and Ed

Duffy and Ed Limb as Roland

Order is maintained not just through the actors’ levels of polish (not a single dropped or fumbled line), but through Toby Marlow’s superb piano as well as Andrew Tan’s and Kathryn Dodds’s tight control of lighting, which bathes the stage in various hues depending on the universe we’re watching to allow us to more easily navigate the plot.

Being a play of such breadth and depth, there were a few sticking points. Understandably, it took a few minutes for the actors to settle into their roles, and Limb’s Roland is basically too nice a guy to hit Duffy’s Marianne convincingly. I’m also unsure if the explanation of the play’s quantum mechanics is necessary or appropriately located, coming as it does around halfway through the action (if you’ve failed to see that Constellations’ hook is the multiverse by then, the explanation will probably be lost on you anyway and you may as well return to watching Brian Cox weep tears of space-related joy to himself on TV). But this hardly matters. ‘Constellations’ is a play buzzing with pace, emotion, and grace.

So: should you go and take a break from revision (or whatever it is you kids do these days) and see it? As a wise man once said: ‘yes.’

4/5 stars