Constellations is not a play about parallel universes, though it happens to include the transgression of time and space, quantum mechanics and a fatal illness, science and bees. At its core, Constellations is a play about courage. The Gate’s captivating rendering of Nick Payne’s two-hander brings forward the humanity of the text, asking its audience whether they have the courage to set everything aside and jump right in.
The lights come up, and we see Marianne (played by Sarah Morris), a quantum physicist, and Roland (played by Brian Gleeson), a beekeeper, meeting at a barbecue. She flirts, he cuts it off: “I’m in a relationship, so.” The lights flash and the stage goes dark for a moment, as the opening scene takes place again and again with slight alterations in Roland’s responses. The scenes progress from coldness to friendship until we end up in a universe where they are both single and they hit it off.
The show continues in a similar fashion, presenting the audience with moments in Roland and Marianne’s relationship shown from a variety of perspectives. Payne’s narrative is fragmentary and repetitive in nature, making it difficult to prevent the audience from being confused by the inconsistent and at times monotonous story, and challenging the actors to deliver the same lines with different intentions. However, one of the great achievements of Constellations is that it keeps the audience absorbed and entertained for the entire 75 minutes.
Both Gleeson and Morris demonstrate stellar acting skills throughout the play. Gleeson’s ability to switch from an awkward but warm-hearted gentleman to a bad-tempered and impatient boyfriend highlights the multitude of possibilities of who Roland can be – hateful when he slaps Marianne during a fight, yet sympathetic when he helplessly yells at her out of inability to help his dying partner.
Morris’s Marianne fascinates the audience with her courage and directness – the courage to approach a man as a woman and initiate a relationship, the courage to reject sex with a man because, “I’ve changed my mind. I’m allowed to change my mind, aren’t I?”, the courage to face her illness and keep going, and the courage to know when to ask for help because things can’t go on as they are.
There is no definitive storyline in Constellations. The closest thing to one is Marianne’s illness, which permeates the show from beginning to end, framed by the cold lighting of the previously warm chandeliers in the background.
Indeed, Paul Keoghan’s extraordinary lighting design works wonderfully with Molly O’Cathain’s audacious set choices. The reflective surface of the stage and the mirror on the ceiling direct the rays of light that explain the time flow. The chandeliers create a charming magical atmosphere from the moment you come into the auditorium, while the diffused light of the crystal prisms evokes the notion of quantum physics and the multiverse and the scattering of possibilities and outcomes.
Marc Atkinson Borrull directs with precision and delicacy. His direction seems to stare directly into the human soul, recognising something about people that they might not know about themselves and finding shape for it in speech and movement. Constellations allows him to present us with life as it is in its various colours. Atkinson Borrull’s directing makes each brief encounter on stage feel like a complete, meaningful story.
One of the most moving episodes of Constellations is the conversation in sign language. Not a word is uttered, yet the dialogue is clear and heartbreaking, bringing the audience to tears. Despite being framed by scientific theories and dealing with death, Constellations is funny and playful. The outright “soggy sausages” remark or the clumsy marriage proposal evoke bursts of genuine laughter. The Gate’s Constellations inspires hope in its audiences even as they leave the auditorium to a song carefully chosen by sound designer Kevin Gleeson, telling them that “True Love Will Find You in the End”.
Constellations runs in the Gate Theatre until June 2nd. Tickets can be booked on the Gate website here.