“Only connect”, said E. M Forster in Howard’s End, which in a way sums up all human striving for communication and meaning. But it’s such a difficult thing to achieve, and thus can be the motivation for almost any work of theatre. Constellations by British playwright Nick Payne is about love, of course, with a bit of theoretical physics thrown in, and string theory and parallel universes, and bee-keeping and the fact that when a male bee mates with the queen, his penis snaps off and he dies.
There’s a bit of gratuitous and probably useless knowledge for you, which may or may not help you to understand the jerky movement of this on/off love affair from the first meeting of Marianne, a physicist who says she spends most of her time typing tables into a computer, with Roland, a slightly dorky bee-keeper, and their awkward relationship.
That’s the plot, such as it is, and it consists of hesitant scrappy dialogue which constantly takes one step backward and two steps forward, and sometimes sidesteps as well. Nothing seems to happen in this strange relationship, as the time shifts are equally incomprehensible, I was never sure whether the narrative sometimes went backward, and who was engaged/married to whom and for how long. And why “Constellations” as a title?
The last question is helpfully answered by Sam Strong, Queensland Theatre’s new artistic director, who reminds us in the program notes that a constellation is not just a group of stars, but a joining-up of any different kind of separate parts that together make a pattern. We do the joining up, and then our brain sees the pattern – it’s a game we’ve played since childhood in our puzzle books. So we do not need explanations or working out of meaning along the way, because we see the meaning as the pattern emerges.
That’s great in theory, but what matters is how it works theatrically. The set is important, and here Anthony Spinaze gives us a pattern of joined-up triangles (not quite the shape of a honey-comb) which wander across the stage at various heights like an uneven rock face. The adjoining edges are sometimes lit up to make shapes of various sizes, which form unidentified locations, and from which Roland (Lucas Stibbard making a brave go at the rustic accent) and Jessica Tovey as Marianne make clumsy contact.
It’s all a little emotionally embarrassed and physically unco-ordinated, and they never seem to achieve a credible relationship. The relationship doesn’t have much depth, and they meet only spasmodically and randomly, and they do a lot of yelling at and second-guessing each other. She won’t speak to him in the clear terms that he and we want, and the dialogue gets louder and angrier as Roland becomes more frustrated.
You’ll have guessed by now that I didn’t like this play much – not because it was too intellectual, but because the ideology wasn’t presented in a humanly recognisable way, and there was no warmth or pathos in the relationship. We’re still not used to theatre that plays around with time like this, and, as Kenneth Slessor said in Five Bells, ‘Time that is moved by little fidget wheels/Is not my time, the flood that will not flow. Too fidgety for my taste’.