We all wonder, sometimes, how different our lives would be if at a particular point we had made a different decision or given somebody a different answer. Or even made the same decision but at a different time. It’s a question asked poignantly by the play Constellations. By LESLEY STONES.
Would we be living a vastly different life from the one we are now, and would it be better or worse? we might ask. Are we somehow doing everything all wrong?
There have been many films exploring the concept of a parallel universe, but none put it quite so eloquently as the stage production of Constellations.
The play by Nick Payne premiered in London in 2012 and won the Best Play category in Evening Standard Theatre Awards that year.
It’s a wordy and intense two-hander that starts with Mary (Janna Ramos-Violante) trying to chat up Roland (Ashley Dowds) at a barbecue.
She makes the same awful gaffs we’ve all made, feeling like an idiot and sounding like one too. The short conversation is repeated in various ways and with various outcomes. He politely rebuffs her because he’s married. He has a girlfriend. He had a girlfriend…
We cotton onto the idea that life isn’t one set journey across a pre-defined path. It’s a series of a stepping stones across the raging torrent of possibilities that you can cross in various different ways, choosing where to put your feet at every step. Sometimes you sink, sometimes you make it safely to the other side. And quite where you emerge on the other bank depends on where you put your foot each time.
Once Payne has established that concept, he has his character Mary spell it out for us as she explains the theory to Roland, her new boyfriend.
There isn’t just one universe, nor just one parallel universe. There are quantum multiverses presenting infinite possibilities. Every decision you’ve ever or never made and all their outcomes can co-exist simultaneously in another universe.
Dowds and Ramos-Violante interact beautifully, sometimes sparring, sometimes loving or playful. They show their skills by adding a touch of humour here, a flash of anger or levity there as they repeat the same sentences to generate totally different outcomes.
Constellations is a play best seen by inquisitive minds who want to concentrate, analyse and relish the chance to assess the various possibilities.
Director Alan Swerdlow keeps the action flowing and the fizz flying, while quick and subtle changes of lighting punctuate the constant reenactments. The background is suitably uncluttered to allow our minds to focus on the words, with just a bench and a trellis as props.
It’s a play about life and death, living and loving. At one stage – well, at several stages as the scene plays out in various forms – Roland wishes that life was as simple for humans as it is for honey bees. You are born knowing your purpose, and you do it until you die. No agonising over why we are here and what we are meant to spend our lives doing. No dilemmas, no choices. It does sound blissfully simple.
The play must have come from a deep place in Payne’s heart, and I found it touching mine.
Constellations runs at Montecasino Theatre until September 28, then Cape Town’s Theatre on the Bay from September 30 to October 18. DM
Photos by Suzy Bernstein.