Review: Constellations

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constellationsTwo star-crossed lovers, cosmologist Marianne and beekeeper Roland, meet at a barbeque. In a series of similar-yet-different encounters their fates brush past each other, briefly intertwine or collide… resulting in a series of possible realities based on fractionally different choices and chances. Along the way there’s attempted elbow licking, soggy sausages and sauna-like crotches – humorous moments skilfully contrasted with the fallout from infidelities, break-ups, missed opportunities and dreaded illness. It’s an idea similar to the premise for Sliding Doors, but Constellations presents exponential narratives rather that the more simplified ‘what happens if she catches the train v. what happens if she doesn’t’.

Not for the starry-eyed, Constellations uses String Theory (the theory that there are multiple parallel universes) to begin open-ended conversations about a broad sweep of themes; love, death, time, choice and fate. The form of this clever play echoes that of Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow in the way it uses repetition. Such repetitions risk tedium, were it not for their constant shift and subtle nuance. By altering a word, a tone, an emotion, or by reversing who says what, key issues are revealed and reinforced.

Award-winning British playwright Nick Payne has created a challenging script with constant and instant changes in emotion, pace and meaning. One minute the audience is laughing at a joke. Then, with barely a flicker of the lights, the scene switches and there are audible gasps at a loud slap, then sombre uncomfortable silence as tragedy unfolds. This quick-fire rollercoaster of emotions is a pretty tall order for any actor. Moreover, the two-hander cast is critical to the success of the piece as there are no costume or scene changes and minimal props to indicate whether we’re popping forward or backward in the narrative, or even which tangent of the narrative we’re on.

Janna Ramos-Violante (Marianne) and Ashley Dowds (Roland) rise to the challenge with a pretty convincing job all round. Ramos-Violante’s Marianne is quirky, witty and mostly loveable. Dowds is slightly too cool-looking for a haphazard beekeeper storing his honey in bin-liners, but otherwise very watchable.

Celebrated director Alan Swerdlow has plumped for an almost bare white set, a blank canvas upon which to draw the endless permutations of Marianne and Roland’s relationship. A twisting branch arcs over the stage, with a constellation of light bulbs hanging from it, and a solitary bench below. The closed doors at the back of the stage – which apparently lead to a ballroom dancing class – remain closed, hinting at the infinite other universes and the myriads of other alternatives that lie beyond.

With the running time just a little over an hour, this fragmented bittersweet story is a brilliant new work which manages to be both fast-moving and measured. The hopeful ending is a relief after the preceding scenes where one set of possibilities involves the gloomy disintegration of Marianne’s health.

Constellations is certainly not mainstream roll-about-the-aisles Saturday night entertainment, but this  intelligent piece of theatre is funny, moving and enormously thought-provoking. It’s the sort of play you might find yourself thinking about it when you’re driving to work the next morning, or washing the dishes after dinner a week later.

In our universe at least, it seems that writer Nick Payne’s stars have aligned rather nicely in this remarkable play. Constellations does require rapt attention in order to untangle and understand the splintered story, but that’s a huge part of the play’s appeal as it follows you out of the theatre and continues to tickle your subconscious.

Nicola Beach

Constellations is currently showing at the Montecasino in Jo’burg until 28 September. It can then be seen at the Theatre on the Bay, Cape Town from 30 September to 11 October 2014.

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