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.