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(A Play)

Nick Payne

see also novel Replay by Ken Grimwood

A man and a woman meet for the first time at a barbeque.

Then they meet for the first time again.

And 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.

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