Nick Payne’s award winning Constellations tells a love story over multidimensional space. It’s both a simple and complex concept: in order to marry classical and quantum physics, many dimensions must exist, entirely separate, yet offering infinite possibilities and outcomes to every decision made. It’s easy to imagine that these dimensions are connected, dependent, in fact, on what happens in each, but of course that isn’t the case. A negative outcome here does not necessarily make more likely a positive outcome in another multiverse, it is simply an inevitable truth in the here and now. What happens elsewhere is moot. It’s a scientific viewpoint that is used to great effect by Payne and from it we see a relationship that is more than the sum of its parts, more than it could ever possibly be.
A simple boy meets girl tale is played out within a sparse set (the play indicates no props). Stage directions are absent from the script, with a shift in universe indicated by an indented rule upon the page. This looseness of form can be both savior and curse: a focus on subtle changes in narrative and dynamic, playing the bare truthfulness of each version of the story as if for the first time, is all and everything to the success of this piece. Technically challenging as it is to repeat a scene with no sense of reset, to play a scene with no recall of it having been done before, to play it with utter sincerity without feeling the need to push the differences between the divergent dimensions, it is this that is the magic of the play.
Director Angharad Lee (with designer Jessica Scott) has created a striking world of stark white flooring stretching out sideways as if to infinity. Perspex shards hang overhead like shattered borders between parallel worlds, through which we might travel. Four imposing lights directly face the audience (in another life they shared a stage with Take That), acting both as sentinels and inquisitors. Jane Lalljee’s lighting design is simple but effective, made more powerful by the execution of exquisitely timed transitions. It is clear from the very start that Lee purposefully separates universes by using space. Squares of light precisely illuminate the action, one parallel world after the other, travelling from stage right to left. It is a different treatment, one where blocking and repetitive motifs risk taking precedence over real intimacy and connection between characters. There is a sense that these versions are played out as memory (often gathering a sense of surrealism) rather than independent events existing within their own right, and as such are portrayed with an awareness that they have happened before. The truth of some moments is somewhat lost as a result.
Alexander McConnell’s Roland and Victoria Pugh’s Marianne could indeed inhabit different worlds. One rather reserved, the other overtly expressive, it’s as if they have been flung together from disparate universes into the one that we inhabit. The repetition of key moments in their story with sometimes only slight shifts (in one sequence of echoes, Marianne’s crotch is as hot as an inferno, then a sauna, then a hothouse) feels like an attempt to “try again”, to improve on the outcome, sometimes with worse effect. The most poignant juxtaposition of all comes as a result of a lateral shift along their timeline: having repeatedly witnessed their initial meeting, our perspective is shunted suddenly, as we transition between dimensions, to a point much further along their trajectory. It is a locus to which almost all versions of the story inexorably lead and it brings with it philosophical questions of pre-determination and free will. If all possibilities play out ad infinitum, are the choices that we make in this version of reality diminished in importance? Indeed, are they choices at all? And if, with unadulterated free will, we inevitably arrive at the exact same pivotal moments in life, is it worth wasting too much time on the decisions we make anyway?
As Brian Green states in The Elegant Universe: “Free will is the sensation of making a choice. The sensation is real, but the choice seems illusory. Laws of physics determine the future.”
This production has had a very brief run. It is a shame, for in keeping with the sentiment of the piece, each performance could bring new discoveries and insight. It is the kind of play that could easily be seen more than once and feel different every time, becoming itself more than the sum of its parts and maybe, in another universe somewhere, this co-production between On In 5 and Little London Theatre Co. is still being performed!