Saturday, 29 December 2012

Bee keeping, Quantum mechanics and love

Constellations is seventy minutes long. No interval. Most “scenes” are brief. Blink and you’ll miss some of them. The stage is bare apart from white helium balloons, heavenly spheres or molecular models, that float above the action. Two actors (Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall) are on stage throughout.

Constellations is a boy meets girl love story – a metaphysical romcom with dark metastases. A love story about the infinite, shifting possibilities of love. This is a theatrical chamber piece written with intellectual dexterity and played with inventive commitment.

Marianne, a vivacious quantum physicist at Sussex University, and Roland, a blokeish beekeeper, meet at barbeque. There’s a bit of awkward flirting. She makes a joke that bombs and any possibility of romance ends there. But then the meeting is played out again in a parallel universe. Slight variations in the original meeting – the turn of a phrase, the language of their bodies – result in new outcomes. Another universe. Another meeting. Exponential results. And so on, until we see their love for each other take shape.

The defining moments of their relationship are played out in these parallel universes. The theoretical existence of a multiverse, that our lives and deaths can be played out in any number of ways, is what excites motor mouthed Marianne. For Roland, struggling to keep up with his girlfriend’s lessons in quantum mechanics, the three different kinds of bees, each with their specific purpose in the hive, provide him with a key to understanding the purpose of life. “If only we could understand why it is that we’re here and what it is that we’re meant to spend our lives doing.” The word “God” punctuates the play as a challenge to positivistic ways of thinking.

Constellations is thought provoking and stylish, but it's not as clever as it would like us to believe it is. The playwright, Nick Payne, can’t quite make up his mind whether he wants to engage our hearts or our minds. In the end, he does neither.

What this production does have are the two perfectly pitched, charismatic performances of Hawkins and Spall. Their relationship fizzes on stage with authenticity and tenderness. They remind us that love, in all its complex variations, is the atomic matter that makes us who we are. Love is the driving force of the universe.

Constellations by Nick Payne is currently playing at the Duke of Yorks Theatre, London.

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