Constellations | Melbourne Theatre CompanyLeft – Alison Bell and Leon Ford. Photo – Jeff Busby

Constellations is the brainchild of young British playwright Nick Payne, a graduate of the Young Writers’ Program at London’s Royal Court Theatre, where the play was first staged to great acclaim just over a year ago. Slightly clichéd in its Sliding Doors postmodern structure and its theme of multiple universes and alternate realities, the two-hander throws together an unlikely pair: a female cosmologist and a male beekeeper. Here ensues a revolving narrative, with identical scenes re-enacted, to produce different outcomes: a relationship that stumbles, or flourishes, or ends, or never gets off the ground.

The script owes more to reality TV than Samuel Beckett in its attempt to recreate the inarticulate and fragmented patterns of everyday speech. Unfortunately reality is more boring than fiction and, in the opening scene cycle, we have to endure the embarrassing small talk these two engage in as they meet at a barbecue and sip their drinks, ad nauseam. But there are no drinks, no props, nothing but the actors and their repertoire of gestures, vocal nuances and body language to convey the various permutations of their developing relationship.

There were plenty of conspiratorial laughs from the glitterati as Marianne (Alison Bell) and Roland (Leon Ford) revisited this mating game scene with different degrees of success. Bell has an excellent range of facial and bodily gestures and an ability to engage with the other actor. Ford had some versatility but a narrower range of expression. Only later, in the final take of the proposal scene, where Roland finally warms to the role of romantic swain (and how could Marianne resist him now?), does his body language relax and his ability to communicate bloom.

Constellations must look a little dull on the page and I wonder if there is any indication how the actors are to play the reruns of each scene. It is, without doubt, a play for actors that lives or dies according to their skills, just as the relationship onstage evolves through the couple’s ability to communicate or their failure to do so. So why does director Leticia Caceres keep the actors standing most of the time, often at opposite sides of the stage? It puts extra strain on their ability to react and relate to each other.

Ironically, the most affecting scene in the play is the one – two-thirds of the way through – in which the actors, seated close to each other on the floor, use signing to communicate. We have already watched the scene with dialogue, so the wordless version is easy to follow. It feels like a natural ending, where the communication is finally intimate after so many misunderstandings, and where the body does not lie.

The set, designed by Marg Horwell and strangely redolent of a seedy 1970s flat, consists of an unrelenting wall-to-wall carpeted space, a square of parqueted dance floor at its centre, and an incongruous chandelier supported by a freestanding metal frame dangling to one side. The transition from one scene to the next, often a new version of the previous one, is marked imperceptibly by a subtle shift of lighting or musical chord. There are no clear cues for the actors or audience that we are in another reality. Only the acting tells us this.

In a sense, this absence of visual and auditory imagery is admirable. There are no balloons, as there were in the first run of the play in London, bobbing on their strings, to put the idea of atoms, string theory and get-well presents, into the minds of the audience. The lack of an integrated design, in the MTC production, puts the burden on the actors to bring the script to life. The relationship in question is no great passion, in any of its incarnations. Why should we care about it then, or the blow that destiny finally brings to their lives? And where does destiny fit in the game of chance or the choices that take us in any particular direction?

Paul Galloway, who writes the program notes for MTC, quotes an interview with Nick Payne for The Stage in which Payne says ‘Ultimately, if you are not writing for actors, I don’t know who you are writing for. It is always more interesting when actors bring their ideas to a play. Otherwise, it just sounds exactly as it did in my head, which is pretty much pointless really.’

Apparently there is a film of Constellations on the cards. In that event, the author can take a back seat and let the film crew swing into action. For stage drama, I believe the script is all-important. Galloway’s excellent program notes gave me more food for thought than the play, in spite of its grand themes. There is nothing that beats the articulate.

Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Nick Payne

Director Leticia Cáceres

Venue: Arts Centre Fairfax Studio, Melbourne
Dates: 8 Feb - 23 March 2013
Time: Mon/Tues 6.30pm; Wed 1pm & 8pm; Thurs/Fri 8pm; Sat 4pm & 8.30pm.

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