Constellations – Nick Payne, chance and free will. (Theatre Review)

unnamed (3)


Darlinghurst Theatre Company

13 August – 7 September You can grab your tickets here.

Qantam mechanics and the theory of relativity are the already becoming tired symbols of “intelligence”. they are particularly thrilling in the wake of the weird idea we got that science could replace God – despite not being completely sure of what the “purpose” of god in our lives is. God was all-knowing, notoriously difficult to understand, harbouring a hidden irrefutable truth and graced those who claimed to know him with the gift of appearing to be very intelligent to mere mortals. Qantam physics is a new replacement for this ideal, seeing as it can claim all the same attributes, particularly the great trick of making people feel “smart” when they know even a little bit about it, or when they feel that stretching toward the notion has intellectual value. Strolling around the latest articles in New Scientist can give you the same intellectual boost that walking around a book store once did, even if in both cases you never got quite to the end of the reading material you purchase. Interestingly, despite the arrival of websites like ScienceDonations, very few people are directing their financial support to scientific research, surely an area that would benefit greatly from crowd funding. Perhaps scientific research takes too long to be properly funded in short bursts, or perhaps we prefer to think of science as like god – an unstoppable self-sufficient creature that doesn’t need our help.

Nick Payne’s Constellations is a mixture of scientific theory and interpretation and its impact on the personal, which creates  fascinating insight into the way we relate to scientific theory in our lives. Constellations is a clever play, using the conflicting ideas in the theory of relativity and those of qantam mechanics, one having its eyes on the enormity of the universe and the other on the minutiae of qarks and atoms. Out of this he reveals a love story that has multiple possibilities for success, based on various circumstances of chance and choice. A coupe meet and get together at a BBQ – at least they would if they were both single. If one is married, the chances of making the choice to be together are significantly reduced. You get the idea. These various options are played out within each scenario, so that we see several plays unfolding at once, always overlapping, always a mixture of chance and choice. Nick Payne writes beautifully, so the couple are not shuffled about like chess pieces, but rather come alive with vibrancy as we care deeply for all of their multifarious outcomes. It relies a little too heavily on obfuscation, but that is part of its charm, knowing that the contemporary audience will lean toward it anyway, assuming the play to be smarter than they are – and that is a rare accomplishment in any contemporary creative offering.

unnamed (2)

In the program to the Darlinghurst Theatre Companies current production, a glossary is submitted. It includes a piece on bees, expressive aphasia, string theory and the multiverse, directing the audience to these as the great foundations of the piece they are going to see. It grounds Constellations in biology, philosophy, psychology and qantam physics, though it is the emotional power that Payne writes that has us love the protagonists as they struggle with what life throws at them. He cleverly keeps the theatrical stage simple, it’s just two people, a boy and a girl, and only seventy minutes long, but the impact of the emotional is enhanced by the audiences strange relationship with what they understand, try to understand and claim to understand. Payne’s cleverness here is shrouding mystery in a science that impresses us that almost no one understands, but that Payne assumes you do – knowing full well you don’t. When you have this magic formula perfected, it no longer matters if you understand or not – you will be captivated by the strength of your own desire to know. It’s the way we used to love plays about gods and their mysteries – much of Constellations circular narrative owes its intensity to Greek theatre, being about the suffering and condemnation of random and pointless acts. “Time is irrelevant at the level of atoms and molecules. It’s symmetrical. We have all the time we’ve always had. You’ll still have all our time,” cries the tragic cursed female as she embraces (or possibly not) a fate brought on by the randomness of the universe.

Anthony Skuse directs a beautiful and worthy (of this well written play) production currently at the Darlinghurst Theatre. Emma Palmer is our “she” (Marianne) and Sam O’Sullivan our “he” (Roland) and the pair perform this wonderfully complex narrative with a strength of conviction that allows the audience to properly follow the changes in direction that give the writing so much power. Skuse writes about the meeting place of God and science in his introduction, noting the Darlinghurst theatre was a place of worship itself. The irony, and perhaps inevitability of performing a play based on string theory in a transformed church is, of course, not lost on him and incorporated into the spirit of the performance through a sometimes cathedral kind of lighting by designer Sara Swersky. He has directed a production with a lot to love, from Marty Jamieson’s sound composition, through the excellent dialects of the protagonists, (Linda Nicholls-Gidley is credited as voice coach for Palmer and O’Sullivan) a strong team that work well together to bring life to a strong play. Constellations has a lot to think about, a lot to boggle the mind over, and a lot to embrace in the moment, being on the whole, a very enjoyable theatre experience.


unnamed (1)