Many plays about science suffer from trying to do too much, telling a story while teaching science, but Nick Payne’s two-hander “Constellations”, now on at the Royal Court Theatre in London, has science and a scientist at its center, adding to the drama, not distracting us with jargon or science fictional twists.
“Constellations” is the story of Roland and Marianne, a beekeeper and a cosmologist. Without giving away too many spoilers, I’ll say that the play tells us the story of their relationship, as it might play out in the myriad possible universes of the multiverse, each one subtly different from the rest (while of course there would be vastly many more that are not subtly, but radically, different — but a play about empty, boring Universes would be less compelling). In one, Marianne tells Roland “I sit in front of the computer all day and analyse data from the Cosmic Microwave Background” which readers will know is pretty much exactly what I do. In others, she is still an astrophysicist, sometimes more theoretical, sometimes more observational (or she is the same, just choosing to highlight different parts of her work to impress Roland or drive him away). Sometimes we see their relationship end, sometimes continue, sometimes restart, as the play pushes forward in time and between the universes. And we return, repeatedly, to one particular version of their story, towards a climax in the future of one or more of the Universes, which puts the comedy of many of the situations into tragic relief.
Playwright Nick Payne needs one of his characters to be a scientist, able to describe the underlying ideas, but manages to avoid too much heavy-handed exposition, limiting the explicit discussion of cosmology to flirty conversations early on in their relationship (I don’t know about my peers, but I find cosmology very good for flirting, at least with the right people). Sally Hawkins’ Marianne and Rafe Spall’s Roland are improbably attractive but manage to get across at least some of the neediness and nerdiness of someone burrowed so deeply into both the technical problems and the broad themes of something like cosmology or beekeeping, making us care about them and their fate (or fates?).