Nick Payne

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Originally written for The Stage.

“I don’t really see this,” says Nick Payne, tapping the sturdy wooden table we are sitting at. “My brain just tells me that that’s what it is to steady me, because otherwise I’d freak out if I was really able to take in all the information around me.”

With a slight grin, the writer is explaining the research behind his new play Incognito, a cerebral interrogation of the mind’s inner workings. If it sounds like meaty material, it’s little surprise. Payne’s debut play If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, which won him the George Devine Award in 2009, collided domestic drama and climate science, while subsequent work has tackled bereavement, quantum physics and contemporary gender politics.

“I suppose it tends to start with something I read about,” Payne reflects. Thoughtful, unassuming and frequently apologetic, the playwright is quietly frustrated by his struggle to remember the genesis of specific projects. He admits that ideas emerge “mostly by chance” rather than through any desire to address a particular topic. “With Constellations, it was a conscious decision to try and find a form that was non-naturalistic,” he recalls as an example, adding that he “stumbled on that whole thing about the multiverse”.

Constellations, which imagined one relationship playing out in countless variations across multiple universes, was the play that convincingly cemented Payne’s career as a playwright. The show quickly transferred from the Royal Court to the West End and won Payne the Evening Standard Award for Best Play in 2012, as well as attracting an Olivier nomination. This followed a steady stream of new plays, including Wanderlust at the Royal Court and One Day When We Were Young for Paines Plough, but Constellations raised him to a new level.

“Only for the last year and a half has it started to feel like a career rather than something I’m doing with the hope that one day …” Payne trails off, as if afraid of tempting fate by acknowledging his recent success. For a number of years after moving to London from university, Payne subsidised his writing with shifts at the National Theatre bookshop and as a theatre usher, eventually committing to playwriting full-time in 2010 after his breakthrough with If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet.

Central to Payne’s development as a writer during this time was his participation in the Royal Court’s Young Writers’ Programme. “The Writers’ Programme made you feel a bit like you could be a writer,” he says, “because you’d go to a theatre every week and you’d see all the shows.” It was also while at the Royal Court that the first seed of an idea for Constellations was planted, Payne remembers, by a talk about physics given by former literary manager Ruth Little.

Incognito, which recently opened at the Hightide Festival ahead of a run at the Bush Theatre, continues some of the ideas about free will that emerged during the process of writing Constellations, returning Payne to his recurring preoccupation with science. Borrowing from the latest developments in neuroscience, the play questions the extent to which we are really in control of our own identities, exploring the complex and delicate mechanisms of the brain. Like much of the playwright’s work, it has involved extensive research.

“It’s not research in an academic way,” Payne is quick to add, admitting that the science in Constellations was flawed – and scientists had no problem telling him so. Instead, it is about knowing his characters and their motivations; his priority is to “make sure it’s dramatic above anything else”. For this reason, perhaps, Payne prefers talking to people over reading books: “I enjoy meeting people who do those jobs, and having my naive illusions of what they do and how exciting it must be shattered.”

As is often the case with Payne’s writing, it was the research behind Incognito that has moulded the shape of the play. “I thought there’s a form here that can hopefully feel like a brain solving everything for us,” he explains. The play begins as a confusing, fast-moving assault of information, switching rapidly between three different narratives situated at different points in time, before the various pieces of the puzzle gradually slot into place. “The idea that the brain is a sort of storytelling machine that keeps us going by building a narrative is partly what the play does.”

Although he first broke through with astutely observed naturalism, Payne is increasingly interested in experimenting with dramatic form. Incognito cleverly meshes form and content; Constellations, with its swift, snapshot scenes and complete absence of naturalistic staging, was born from a desire to temporarily ditch social realism and create “something that you couldn’t do in any other medium”. Recent project Blurred Lines, meanwhile, cast Payne in the role of collaborative creator, working closely with director Carrie Cracknell and a devising company of actors.

“That form thing, the question of how and why are you going to give your play a particular shape or structure or architecture, was not something we addressed until right at the very end,” Payne explains the process, admitting that this uncertainty made him “twitchy”. Blurred Lines was created over the space of two week-long workshops at the National Theatre Studio and four weeks of rehearsals directly prior to the show’s run in The Shed. It was a tight development period: at the beginning of week two of rehearsals, the team decided to scrap most of what they had produced so far, going on to devise almost the whole show in just three weeks.

Payne is eager to challenge himself in this way, insisting that he’s interested in “working in as many different ways as there are”. It would be a waste, he suggests, not to use the creative resources on hand in the rehearsal room. “There’s always a point in rehearsals where the performers start to know the play much better than you do. I think at that point you’re mad if you’re not listening to them going ‘I’ve got an idea’, or ‘can we try this’, or ‘I’m really stuck on this’.”

As a result, the playwright is less and less protective of his own work and is very open to making changes – even major ones – during the rehearsal process. Refreshingly, he is not particularly concerned with the idea of rigid fidelity to his vision. “That thing of serve the writing, I find a bit …” Payne pauses, making a face. “I don’t really get it.”

Payne’s most recent challenge has been a foray into television, but he quickly found himself pining for the thrill of the rehearsal room. “The development process was pretty similar, and I enjoyed that, but then you’re much less involved,” he explains. For him, the rehearsal process is the “fun bit of the job”, when all the most illuminating questions are asked about the play. And this, he suggests, is just as vital for him as the process of gathering the research or sitting at his desk writing.

“A film is made three times: it’s written and then shot and then edited. I sort of think it’s true of a play too. I enjoy being around for all of that.”

Photo: Bill Knight.

Tom Scutt: Deceptive Minimalism

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Watching Constellations, Nick Payne’s delicate exploration of love and the multiverse, I struggled to keep my eyes off the balloons. Like a birthday party run riot, Tom Scutt’s design was full of the things – white, weightless, hovering above the stage. Throughout the show, these floating objects spoke continually to Payne’s themes, lightly hinting at atoms, at possibilities, at easily punctured hope. In a similar way, 13 was refracted through the huge black box that dominated the stage of the Olivier, its nightmarish presence suggesting everything that was so disquieting about Mike Bartlett’s vision.

“It’s just a black box; it’s just a load of white balloons,” Scutt says when we chat in the Royal Court bar, acknowledging the simplicity of these designs with a smile. He goes on to describe his design for The Djinns of Eidgah, currently running in the Court’s upstairs theatre, as “just a load of string”. This simplicity, however, often contains within it great complexity. While Scutt’s portfolio features an impressive range of work – from the minutely detailed pub of The Weir to the magical landscape of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – it can usually be characterised by an intellectual depth that belies its surface charm.

When I suggest that the deceptive minimalism of the sets for Constellations and 13 is what makes them work, Scutt nods, but jumps in to qualify the uncluttered clarity of these concepts. “You can tell when simplicity is simplicity because of ease and when simplicity is simplicity because of something that is constantly feeding the audience,” he explains carefully. For Scutt, design is always about feeding the audience, about offering them something beyond a straightforward setting for dramatic action.

As in Constellations and 13, Scutt’s designs have a habit of excavating something within the plays they contain. This is perhaps a result of Scutt’s process, which tends to involve more reading and writing than it does drawing – a “dirty confession” for a designer. “I can’t really design unless dramaturgically I know what’s going on,” Scutt tells me, revealing that his process is “very argy-bargy with other people’s roles in the team”. While he shies away from the term “collaborative”, which he feels is over-used, Scutt is keen to dissolve some of the misleading distinctions between creative roles, explaining that “it’s a completely fluid affair when I’m working with a director”. When he first worked with Natalie Abrahami, for example, she brought in a set of storyboards, while he arrived armed with a heavily annotated script.

Scutt’s way of working, which he describes as a “really rigorous process of elimination of ideas”, also means that the design often takes shape relatively late into the process. But when it does finally fall into place, he knows that it’s right: “I don’t know what anything is going to look like for so long, and then suddenly it just lands and it makes sense.” Despite the dramaturgical rigour of his process, however, the designs that Scutt has been most satisfied with have all been born from instinctive ideas that “won’t fuck off”. “It’s intuitive,” he says, “the gut just goes ‘this is right’.”

This was certainly the case with 13, which was “there all the time; I just couldn’t get it out of my head”. The monolithic revolving cube was “tonally right” for the play, Scutt explains, rather than drawing on one particular theme. The image of the box represented “science and religion in one, it was Pandora’s Box, it was nightmares, it was an alarm clock, it was an iPhone and a laptop, a black hole that you stare into, it was 2001 Space Odyssey, it was the blue box in Mulholland DriveA similarly multi-layered collage of ideas informed the design for Constellations, which alluded to “synapses in the brain and atoms and sperm and weddings and parties”, while at the same time combining great beauty and profundity with something “shit and basic and sort of mundane”. In both instances, the design seized on something in the metabolism of the play without taking any literal inspiration from the text.

Although these conceptual designs might be some of the most rewarding, they are also some of the hardest – “it always scares the bejeezus out of me,” Scutt laughs. “It’s what Carrie Cracknell would call hard good,” he continues. “It’s really satisfying, it’s really crunchy and you really have to get your head round it.” But, for all his enthusiasm for the minimal and conceptual, Scutt also makes a vital clarification about his more realistic designs. “When I do a ‘naturalistic’ design, or a perceived naturalistic design, it’s actually not at all,” he says, expressing frustration at readings of his work which underestimate the work being done just below the surface. Whether it is the wild, playful quality of the taxidermy that cluttered No Quarter in the upstairs space at the Royal Court, or the fractured, schizophrenic tone of his design for Cracknell’s production of Wozzeck for the ENO, there is always more to Scutt’s designs than immediately meets the eye.

“There’s way more thought that goes into these things than people understand,” Scutt says, referring as much to other designers as to himself. We discuss Ian MacNeil’s hauntingly elegant designs for A Doll’s House and Desire Under the Elms, while I later think of the seemingly stripped backed simplicity of Chloe Lamford’s set for The Events and the amount of work it is quietly doing in that piece. Scutt suggests that the nature of the theatre culture in this country means that some audiences – and particularly some critics – are not “visually astute”, and that the expectations of naturalism often lead to a misreading of ostensibly realistic designs. “If someone sees a chair, they go ‘ah, I know where I am’, and so they quantify it in terms that they can relate to,” he explains.

As well as falling foul of misunderstandings about how design enters into dialogue with a show, Scutt thinks that designers suffer from a rigid and often inaccurate distribution of creative roles by critics and commentators. This is highlighted particularly by awards, which sharply divide recognition into job titles – something with which Scutt and the whole creative team felt uncomfortable when Constellations was showered with nominations. “We all felt really weird that anybody could be split up in that way,” he remembers. “We made a thing; it wasn’t a play with a design, it wasn’t something that you could just whack on stage and it just happens that everything else is really nice. It was a thing, and it’s only what it is because of all the tiny little things that come together in a weirdly relevant way.”

Scutt’s suggested solution, as well as demystifying the roles of various different individuals in the theatremaking process, is to break down perceived hierarchies of creation. “We should all be as unimportant as each other,” he says, grinning at this idea. “I think that’s when it’s really exciting, because everyone’s opinion is valid and nobody’s opinion is wrong.”

This goes some way towards explaining Scutt’s latest challenge. He has recently been announced as one of the associates joining new artistic director Sam Hodges at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton – a rare instance of a designer being offered a position of this nature. As part of a team that includes playwright Adam Brace and directors Blanche McIntyre, Natalie Abrahami and Michael Longhurst, Scutt will be offered an equal hand in decision making, marking a move away from the traditional division of roles.

“It feels like a really healthy and interesting step for me to be involved in decisions when it comes to programming and casting and the building, rather than just necessarily the designs,” Scutt says, adding that he is embracing the experience as a chance to learn and evolve as an artist. One of his first projects will be a reunion with Constellations director Longhurst to work on a new version of Caryl Churchill’s A Number, which is due to open in February.

The structure of a building and Hodges’ flexible approach to creative roles, meanwhile, might offer Scutt the space to continue following his gut. Because when design works best, Scutt suggests, it comes from instinct rather than intellect. “That’s how I feel design should work, that it works intuitively,” he reflects. “You don’t have to justify it; it just sort of happens.”

Photo: Geraint Lewis.

Constellations, Duke of York’s Theatre

The first thing to note about Constellations is the balloons. Tom Scutt’s gorgeous set design is full of them – hovering weightlessly above the two actors, clustered at the sides of the raised platform that fills the stage, occasionally tumbling slowly down. Watching this cloud of balloons while waiting for the performance to begin, I was reminded of two things: one was the simple delight of coming home on the night before my 21st birthday to find that my bedroom had been filled with dozens of the floating, multi-coloured things by my housemates; the other was that childhood game of letting go of a helium-filled balloon and watching it drift away to faraway imagined lands.

There’s something about the fragile gesture of hope and congratulation contained within the balloon – and implicit within those two associations – that makes a remarkably apt comment on Nick Payne’s gently complex two-hander. Built on the theory of the multiverse and the premise that each moment gives birth to a multitude of possible outcomes, all being lived along parallel lines in separate universes, Scutt’s balloons take on the character of floating possibilities, equally as likely to puncture as to soar. Like the child who lets go of the string and releases their helium bubble of dreams into the hostile air, the leap of faith required to open your life to another individual is a deeply optimistic act, dogged with the threat of failure at every slight gust of wind.

Payne’s defiantly hopeful figures being swept around the multiverse are quantum physicist Marianne and beekeeper Roland, who are engaged not so much in a “will they/won’t they” situation as “they do/they don’t”. In some variations of their first meeting, Roland rejects Marianne’s goofy flirting, while in some universes one of them is married before they even encounter one another; in some they get engaged, in some they cheat on one another, in some they pass each other by. Like the balloons, which flicker and light up around the two characters as they rapidly feel their way through different scenarios, Marianne and Roland emerge as two atoms “being knocked the fuck around” and occasionally finding contact.

The early part of Payne’s script runs the gamut of basic possibilities – think rom-com with a side of knowing wit – snapping sharply from scene to scene with quickfire precision while Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall shine in brief flashbulb bursts. Reflecting the initial encounters and early dates that form the majority of these scenes, this is theatre as flirtation: charming, calculated to impress, a tad shallow. The meticulously constructed scenes jitter attractively over the surface of Payne’s chosen subject matter, peppered with arch little references to time, mortality and the possibility of other universes, but not quite penetrating the depths. Form and content are intricately tangled up with one another, but the latter seems to serve the self-congratulatory cleverness of the former.

The nature of the piece – or perhaps of the sheer awkward charm of Hawkins and Spall, as it’s hard to tell – means that we become increasingly attached to Marianne and Roland, mirroring the same process that Payne appears to have gone through in writing the play. Half-abandoning the swift, dazzling structure of the opening scenes, our time with these two characters in each of their possible interactions becomes more prolonged and the multiple possible dramas they go through gradually heighten, shifting the emphasis away from formal virtuosity and towards emotional identification. The production is suspended in mid-air, caught between telling the many tender stories of this one couple and exploring the connected, wider concepts of chaos, control, choice and time.

Perhaps there is something in this emergence of a dominant narrative from the many splintered possibilities, something other than the need for a level of cohesion in order for the piece to function (though Caryl Churchill might debate that need, at least on the basis of the unapologetically fractured Love and Information). My extremely vague understanding of science, composed mostly of what little I managed to absorb by osmosis during two years of living with a physicist, makes me want to suggest that patterns hold some degree of importance; patterns are what we seem to search for in the chaos, what we latch onto in order to explain things, as much in everyday life as in scientific research.

Therefore the emergence of a pattern from this particular amorphous collection of possibilities might speak to our (and Marianne and Roland’s) desire for meaning, narrative and the illusion of control. Michael Longhurst’s direction, which bleeds the scenes into one another and avoids too much explicit guiding of our reading, further encourages this almost inevitable mental process of forming connections. One external connection that my mind jumped to was Philip Ridley’s recent play Shivered, another masterclass in shattered plotting. His splinters of story seem to have been thrown about and pieced back together at random, yet an overall shape progressively emerges and simultaneously erases itself as suspicion is thrown on our very act of narrative reconstruction. Even the title of this play called Shivered to mind (a pertinent example of those coincidences that emerge from the chaos and that we swiftly bind together, perhaps?), recalling one speech about “illusory contours”: the patterns we identify in unconnected objects, such as constellations of stars.

As intriguing as these questions of chaos and connection are, however, the piece is at danger of falling prey to the inherent problem of endless possibilities. If there are potentially billions of different universes, with more spawned at every fork in the road, how is the decision made about what to show? How much to show? Due to the nature of its premise, the play is necessarily a tiny fraction of the idea it posits. There is a tension between the concept, which is seemingly limitless, and the conventions of the space and form in which it is being explored, which are decidedly limited. Perhaps it is this tension, ultimately, that makes the piece feel a little too delicate for the structures it is attempting to support. Constellations is pretty and hopeful and occasionally soars high, but it also nurtures the suspicion that, much like its accompanying host of balloons, its fragile containing structure is easily punctured.