Nick Payne’s brisk 2012 two-hander Constellations has already made quite a splash around the world. After a critically-acclaimed premiere season at London’s Royal Court, it transferred to the West End, where it picked up several awards. Last year, a Melbourne Theatre Company production was rapturously received, and the play is due to open on Broadway next year with Hollywood star Jake Gyllenhaal in the cast.
So it does come with a degree of expectation. As a kind of intellectually-rigorous Sliding Doors, it follows the course of a relationship, playing and replaying scene after scene, adjusted each time to account for a different occurrence or a different choice. This play is constantly asking its audience: “what if?”, and then allowing us to live, for just a moment, in each possibility. In an almost musical way, Payne is playing variations on a theme.
Marianne (Emma Palmer) and Roland (Sam O’Sullivan) meet at a barbeque and strike up a conversation. The first time around, Roland bluntly tells Marianne he’s in a relationship, and that’s where their association ends. But then we have the benefit of seeing the scene played through again, multiple times, each with a slightly different emphasis, tone or ending.
Roland is a beekeeper, and is fascinated by the simplicity of bees’ lives, whereas Marianne is a quantum physicist whose days are filled with nothing simple, grappling with ideas like string theory and multiverse theory (which, appropriately, play quite a big role in the course and construction of the play). Their relationship is tough and complicated (or easy and simple, depending on which take on a scene you’re watching) and Payne covers love, death and everything in between with these two characters.
The construction of Payne’s script is mind-bogglingly intelligent. Payne has a real gift for quirky language tics of everyday language, which he plays with over and over again — his work is sharp, sleek, but full of heart.
Thankfully, Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s production, under the direction of Anthony Skuse, matches Payne’s work in nuance and power. Emma Palmer and Sam O’Sullivan are perfectly cast, and turn in two of the finest performances you’ll see on Sydney stages this year. They have the monumental task of redefining their characters’ objectives and stories every minute or two for the course of a 80-minute play, while finding new emphases and resonances in repeated scenes. Under the guidance of Skuse, their work is truly phenomenal, particularly Palmer, who seems to find 10 vastly different ways of reading a line, bringing every reading to life and staying completely true to her take on the character. Praise must also go to Linda Nicholls-Gidley for her dialect coaching — the British accents are faultless throughout.
Skuse has, with designer Gez Xavier Mansfield, stripped the Eternity Playhouse back, exposing the bare bones of the 126-year-old building, with both its aged and restored period features on display. For a play which is so often about the very nature and illusion of time, it’s the perfect setting, where time seems to clash with itself. Sara Swersky’s lighting and Marty Jamieson’s lighting are both lessons in sophisticated simplicity.
Every element here comes together perfectly to complement Skuse’s taut direction, which delves about as deeply into the text as its possible to go, enlivening the entire play through the minutiae of the performances.
This really is an excellent production of an excellent play.