Following a successful 2021 run in London’s West End at the Vaudeville Theatre, the Donmar Warehouse released an on-demand version of Constellations. Michael Longhurst’s revival of Nick Payne’s play is available to rent online through January 31. Constellations is an intense two-hander focusing on the relationship of physicist Marianne and beekeeper Roland.
For starters, this production is intriguing because there were four casts during its run. The duos were Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah, Zoë Wanamaker and Peter Capaldi, Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey, and Anne Maxwell Martin and Chris O’Dowd. In the case of Douglas and Tovey, the physicist’s name was changed from Marianne to Manuel for the same-sex pairing. Theatre goers in London were able to select which cast they wanted to see.
Likewise, the Donmar online experience offers multiple options for your viewing. You can rent the cast option of your choice for 24 hours at £7.50 each or choose a multibuy package of all four casts for £20. At the time of this review, Constellations is to conclude its on-demand run on January 31. However, it’s possible that the theatre could extend the online availability or re-release it.
Offering different casts within the same run is not new. For their 2011 production of Frankenstein, the National Theatre memorably had Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch switch roles as Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster. It was the same play otherwise, but swapping actors created a very different feel for each performance option.
Similarly, Constellations remains the same in terms of script. Marianne (or Manuel) still flirts with Roland at a party, which leads to, and doesn’t lead to, a relationship with harrowing and happy events. Notice that I said “doesn’t lead to.” The play functions as a multiverse of sorts, showing a variety of possibilities in the storyline from the start. As Marianne attempts to engage with Roland in several instances, he either blocks (“I’m in a relationship”), responds neutrally, or appears pleasantly surprised by her attempts at conversation. The stage gets dark briefly with a spark sound effect, allowing the actors to “reset” by assuming neutral poses or facing away before Marianne’s opening line comes again.
It’s the same conversation opener with outcomes unfolding based on the slightest change in stance, tone, or even a laugh. Like the stars in the sky or the constellations, we see a recognizable pattern. Yet in the play, the pattern shifts again and again as we deal with Mariannes and Rolands across parallel universes.
On paper, it probably sounds a bit much and sci-fi, but actually the multiverse concept is appealing. First, in friendships and relationships, sometimes we find ourselves repeating a conversation in our heads afterward to see what went wrong. We overanalyze relentlessly, perhaps too harshly, and ask, “What if I had said it this way? Why did I use that tone with my partner or my ex?”
Second, thinking of other outcomes for a situation parallels nicely with fan fiction. We love to speculate in discussions with friends or we write stories about what we wanted to happen to our favorite characters in a series. Similarly, Constellations is asking those questions and playing with the scenarios in a quirky but endearing fashion. Tense discussions about one character’s health end well in some instances for Marianne and Roland, while others lead to tears and despair.
The multiverse analogy can be extended beyond the script to the four cast options. The pairings are unique because they depend on each actor’s energy and personality, age, and more. One might argue that we’re missing the dynamic of a female-identifying same-sex pair in this mix. However, the four versions of Constellations cover a lot of ground nicely about relationships.
There are a lot of technical aspects to admire about Longhurst’s revival as well. His directing, along with movement direction by Lucy Cullingford, were necessary to reset each conversation and fully delineate the nuances of each pair’s encounter. Tom Scutt’s designs include a wonderfully bare stage, surrounded by an intriguing array of balloons. The flooring consists of hexagonal shapes, calling to mind Roland’s beekeeping profession. The balloons fall or—thanks to the lighting design by Lee Curran—even light up at various points of the play like stars or even brain synapses. Curran’s lighting is also helpful when the timeline skips around, bathing the stage with a darker orange light as one character reveals a startling diagnosis.
I admit that I am very particular when it comes to watching a recorded production. The livestream or on-demand option usually falls flat with me. I was relieved to find in this case that the cinematography worked well. Close-ups were appropriately applied for intense scenes, with long shots employed to reestablish the scene and restart conversations. I also noticed that shots differed between versions, depending on how each pair of actors decided to interpret a scene. I never found myself wondering what I might have missed whenever a different camera angle was used.
Constellations is the reminder we need right now about what’s yet to be discovered in relationships. The clever speech we planned may not always work. The words may even backfire horrendously in a way to laugh about later. However, there’s so much to gain when we take chances to connect with others in friendship and love.
For more information about ‘Constellations’, visit the Donmar’s website.