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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. And we take the opportunity to explore other vintage productions preserved online. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.


Constellations
Donmar Theatre Online   December 2021

Nick Payne's play about a couple who meet and then go through the various stages of a relationship was produced by the Royal Court Theatre and in the West End in 2012.

In 2021 the Donmar Theatre revived that production, with the same director Michael Longhurst, but with four casts in a sequence of short runs: a young white couple (Anna Maxwell Martin and Chris O'Dowd), an older white couple (Zoe Wanamaker and Peter Capaldi), a young black couple (Sheila Atim and Ivanno Jeremiah), and two men (Omari Douglas and Russell Tovey).

All four versions were recorded and are now available online, either separately or as a package. I chose to watch the complete Wanamaker-Capaldi version along with excerpts from the others.

Payne's play is both an intriguing technical exercise and an affecting evocation of the improbability of life.

The first thing you notice in production is the structure. A couple meet and make small talk that really goes nowhere. A sudden lighting change signals a return to the beginning of the scene, which plays with minor changes. And then again, and then again, until it finds a variant that can move forward.

A few moments later another scene goes through a few false starts before finding one that works, and so on through the entire play, plot or character dead ends being abandoned as time winds back to a reset point and tries again.

The dialogue actually mentions the multiverse theory, in which all possibilities exist simultaneously in parallel universes.

But the insight the play really offers is that our lives are made up of hundreds, if not millions, of turning points where we might have gone off in a different direction, with that path branching off into further alternatives. The chance that our lives would take the form they have is so mathematically infinitesimal as to be miraculous.

And how does the casting experiment affect the play and its message? Either not much, or in ways that threaten to dilute its focus.

First, all four sets of actors are excellent and well directed, so there is no quality judgment to be made. It is striking that, at least in the excepts I watched, changing the race of a young couple does not significantly change the play, nor does the fact that one of the pair in the all-male version is black.

But watching two men go through the play's several alternate versions of connecting and taking turns being vulnerable is unfamiliar-enough territory to be fascinating, moving and enlightening in itself.

And the mere fact that the fourth couple have grey hair and lined faces gives the will-they-make-it-together aspect of the story a special urgency and poignancy.

I hasten to say that both of these new elements deepen and enrich the play. But to the extend that they shift our attention away from the playwright's ideas, they might also be considered distractions.

Gerald Berkowitz


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Review of Constellations - Donmar Online 2021