Over the past two weeks, I have repeatedly been reminded that Constellations is mind-bogglingly brilliant. Granted, this is not the most original view. The critics and sell out crowds got there before me on that score, but it bears enthusiastically repeating none the less. Without breaking stride, the narrative jumps from grand ideas about free will to an awkward obsession with bees. The characters, Roland and Marianne, are a variety of contradictory things all at the same time. They’re both together and not together. They first meet at a BBQ and at a wedding. They’re close and distant, intimate and awkward. Needless to say, it’s a dramaturgical treat.
Or headache, depending on your frame of mind.
The play presents a variety of different realities that the characters inhabit (it will make sense once you see it, I promise). Moving between those different realities, presenting characters that look like the ones we’ve seen before but act in completely different ways, demands that difficult and probing questions are asked.
What are the different pressures that have created this Marianne and Roland as opposed to that one? And how, given the vast array of options presented to them, are an audience supposed to engage meaningfully with any one version? There’s the headache.
Generally speaking, characters are judged by what they do and the choices they make. We view Lear as a tragic figure, for instance, because of his choice to trust the wrong daughters. But if we were presented with a play in which Lear chooses another way, and, in fact, every other way he possibly could, the question of who Lear is becomes far more difficult to pin down. Marianne and Roland don’t have a straight, clear set of choices by which they can be judged. We agree with some choices that they make, some versions of them. But their identities are not fixed. They’re in flux, paradoxical. They’re unlike anything I’ve read or worked on before and working them out in rehearsals has been fascinating. Debates have been had, and are still being had, about the parts of Marianne and Roland that are unwavering and those that are subject to change. The result, we hope, will be characters whose identities are recognisable but enjoyably elusive.
Liliane Campos gives some really helpful insights into identity in Constellations. In her lyrically titled Quantum Configurations in Nick Payne’s Constellations, she suggests that the play “creates space for the spectator’s active gaze, inviting us to group his fragments together and to find new meanings in the constellations they produce and the transformations they effect upon each other” (2013). It’s our job, then, to join the dots. We make shapes out of the random, as our ancestors did with the stars and, as we do, we might wonder about the assumptions we bring. The implied linearity to Constellations is there for us, but we are left to draw our own conclusions as well. Part of the joy comes in which versions of the characters we engage with most.
This is not to say that the play becomes bogged down in massive, daunting, unanswerable questions. It’s light and joyous at points, too. But it deals with thought provoking, knotty and difficult ideas in a way I’ve not seen in theatre before. We are having such fun with it and we hope you do too.