Nick Payne’s non-linear, non-traditional play that explores parallel narratives on repeat is a gamble for Darlinghurst Theatre and director Anthony Skuse. It’s string theory theatre which means that we keep circling the loop with the hope that we get a different outcome but the patterns tend to lead us back to the same destination…or origins, if you like.
‘Constellations’ can feel repetitive, because it is. Now that’s either going to fascinate you as we bounce between the same conversation with nuanced differences to see when and how or if we reach a resolution or it’s going to feel like the tension of this conceit quickly dissipates and in the end, we just don’t care about the narrative because we’ve been exposed to it for too long.
I was more in the latter category. I wanted to like it more than I did, just as I wanted to be more comfortable in the Eternity Playhouse seats (is it just me or are they very hard to sit in for long periods of time?). But that is not a criticism of the two fine actors on stage, Sam O’Sullivan and Emma Palmer, who were terrific in this show and I don’t think they (or Skuse for that matter) could have given it any more than they did. Put simply, I’m not in love with the text. It’s trying so hard to be clever and it either appeals or it doesn’t. It’s that easy. Yes, it’s won awards (but so did ‘War of the Roses’ so anything goes) and Payne is hailed as the new Stoppard, but this play, as creative and inventive as it is, felt like it needed twenty minutes shaved off its parallel narratives so the drawn out repetition still stayed fresh.
What ‘Constellations’ does give us is a mix of approaches, subtext, stories, opportunities and outcomes. It’s happy to mix intimacy with intimidation, fears with hopes, love and loss and then plays with ways in which you can react to the unravelling versions of truth and its implications. There’s great word play abound: intonation and intention is at the core of each version of the circling scenarios and we see how tiny variations are completely affected by each expression of old context through slightly altered delivery. See- this play is clever…it’s just not always interesting. And I haven’t even started on the story-line of expressive aphasia, the disorder causing damage to the parts of the brain that control language and comprehension. Payne has managed to connect so many dots that I’ve blunted my colour pencils trying to fill them all in.
I did love some of the scenes that relied on theatricality and humour or at least high emotion, such as the sign language conversation, which was another clever way to twist the expression of words and Skuse certainly found the chemistry between the characters in the quality casting of O’Sullivan and Palmer.
If you enjoy a foray into theatre that takes a risk moving away from the traditional, you’ll definitely get something out of this. But if someone took to this script with a pair of editing scissors, I would not be upset.