The only constant in life is change, and its only certainty is death. Nick Payne’s Constellations is an exploration into the ways we create and tell stories. Through its inventive format of repetition and shifting perspectives, it relays a tale that is remarkably simple, but because of its adventurous format, the work that results is profound and thought-provoking. The play discusses the nature of time, in relation to the way its plot unfolds and also to astrophysics. Its interest in non-linear temporal expressions is derived from academia, but it raises questions of life choices by actualising on the stage, abstract notions of parallel universes. We see two characters acting out unpredictable duplications of scenes, each time with different motivations and nuances. They prompt us to look at the ways we choose to react to things, at how we make decisions in daily life, and whether or not we are in control of the consequences that befall us.
The work is in part about mortality and its inevitability, but it is also about the elasticity of concepts like fate and destiny. In some ways, the message is an optimistic one, where existence can take a myriad of forms, and circumstances can be altered at some degree by volition. The idea of regret and redress also figures into its themes when we observe its characters, Marianne and Roland, moving through time in all directions, to revisit sequences and reinterpret them with fresh approaches. Payne’s script is as complex as the direction wishes for it to be, and Anthony Skuse is certainly unafraid to extricate depth while he builds a coherent piece that looks on its surface to be a love story. The conceptual aspects of Constellations are realised with exciting clarity, and it surprises with emotional textures that are beautifully rendered. The play moves us on levels of instinct, intellect and sentimentality; a rare experience at the theatre, and seriously rewarding.
Skuse and his cast have brought to the writing, thoughtful range and a vibrant energy that keeps us fascinated and engaged. The experimental style of Payne’s script is successfully restrained so that it is a presence that does not overwhelm. There is sufficient room for a cerebral connection, but we are also encouraged to feel the joy, pleasure, anger, fear and sadness that flow through the rich landscape of human experience being portrayed before us. Skuse’s brilliance lies in his ability to discover layers in the play that appear contradictory, and make them all seem simultaneously truthful. His work has a humorous charm that readily finds its way into lighter sections, and comedy often appears quite out of the blue, without ever feeling clumsy or contrived.
Acting in Constellations is demanding to say the least. The production has us fixated on the couple and gives them nowhere to hide. They have to perform countless transitions that are entirely unnatural, yet must create characters that always feel accurate and believable. Both players succeed wonderfully on these fronts, and furthermore, they are immediately endearing and we hang on to their every word. Emma Palmer is simply glorious. The actor feels so completely alive and truthful on this stage, we cannot help but be mesmerised by the way she develops her character from moment to moment. The production relies heavily on Palmer’s performance and she makes it a breathtaking one. The thorough commitment she gives to every quirky flourish and creative decision is evidence of an artist’s single-minded passion for her art form. Palmer elevates the show from abstract philosophy, and provides a palpable authenticity that is responsible for keeping our attention and emotions invested.
Roland is the supportive boyfriend, the selfish bastard, the saint, and the liar. Sam O’Sullivan is compelling at every stage of his portrayal, and even though his work can be at times a little quiet, he never fails to keep us engrossed as the regular guy who is not always Prince Charming. O’Sullivan has a comic flair that he utilises with refreshing competence whenever possible. The actors are individually strong and they work well together, but the chemistry between the two is sometimes unpersuasive, which means that sparks do not always fly when they need to. On the other hand, we feel a sense of weakness in the characters’ bond, which creates an ominous tension that points to the ever-present threat of their relationship’s possible demise.
Production design by Gez Xavier Mansfield is understandably simple. There is something bare bones about the script, which the visuals reflect. The rawness of two people unveiling humanity with intensive honesty is matched by the minimalism of a stage that does not intrude. However, it is worth noting that the venue is fairly large, and allowing the full stage space to be exposed for most of the duration tends to take away from the intimacy that the acting strives for. Set and lighting could have helped reduce the vastness so that the characters are put in greater focus, and be in a position to achieve a stronger connection with the audience. Composer and sound designer Marty Jamieson also creates minimal work but its effect is deceptively powerful. Jamieson never draws attention to himself, but uses simple musical notes to indicate occasional shifts in dramatic tone. His work is sensitive, intuitive and tacitly sublime.
There is no subject more universal than death and illness. Constellations causes an interruption to our lives by making us look at the inevitable end. More than that, it encourages reflection on that journey to death, or to put it less morbidly, the play shines light on what we choose to make out of our every day on earth. Some of us look to the stars to find meaning and to prophesy, but the only predetermined thing that no one is able to escape, is the fact that nothing lasts forever. Each second is full of possibility, and fortunate are those who can uncover the magic that awaits in every twinkling breath.