A daring, graceful juggling act of robust emotions and sophisticated ideas.
Real-life couple Katie Robertson and Jesse Dugan play Marianne and Roland. Image: Amy Brown.
What if … ?
What if you met someone at a barbecue and fell in love? Or flirted, but to no effect? Or chatted and parted? Or ignored each other altogether?
Constellations traces the relationship of Marianne and Roland from their first meeting, through joys, jealousies and wonders. But playwright Nick Payne does not present their journey as a simple chronology of events. Time’s arrow does not fly straight in this elastic narrative that posits numerous permutations and alternate endings for many key moments in the relationship: the barbecue encounter, for example, unfolds half-a-dozen times, each with a different outcome.
Marianne is a theoretical physicist and Roland a beekeeper, and their worldly interests, combined with Payne’s playful structure, provide rich material for metaphor and imagery throughout this smart play. Smart, but not ‘clever’, for the play is also achingly tender.
The lively variability and unpredictability of the play, the intimacy of the relationship and contrastingly wide scope of the story, could tempt a director to indulge in an extravagance of technical display and theatrical tricks. Director Maeve Mhairi MacGregor eschews such temptations, delivering a production that is satisfyingly unfussy. Within a near-bare set, a warm and appealing red cocoon, MacGregor reveals the play with quick, bold, skilful strokes. She nimbly traverses the frequent variations and occasional flash-forwards, never labouring the point – an approach that bears rewards later in the production as, in taut stillness, it takes its time unearthing the darkest sorrows of Marianne and Roland, sorrows which we share.
A couple in real life, Katie Robertson and Jesse Dugan make a charmingly authentic pair of on-stage lovers. Their ease with each other is fresh and beguiling. To say that audiences can feel like voyeurs on on-stage relationships is a cliché, and anyway here it is untrue, for the actors’ ease with each other makes it very easy for the audience to accept Marianne and Roland, to believe them and feel with and for them – funny, brave, vulnerable, tragic and lovable as they are.
The actors attack the technical challenges of the play robustly – perhaps a bit too much so. The structure requires them to jump from one variation to another in no time at all and, early on at least, this gives rise to an extremeness of emotion, and bluntness in the playing. It can feel like the complex text is playing the actors rather than they the text. However, as the play unfolds, Robertson and Dugan bring the play to heel, working with its rhythms and riding the ever-shifting emotional currents with sophistication, subtlety and depth.
Constellations is a daring yet graceful juggling act of robust emotions and sophisticated ideas. The playwright, and this deeply felt production, rarely falter.
4 stars out of 5 ★★★★
By Nick Payne
Director: Maeve Mhairi MacGregor
Designer: Adam (Gus) Powers
Lighting Designer: Max Ford
Composition: Nat Grant
Cast: Jesse Dugan and Katie Robertson
5-14 September 2019
Red Shed, Hobart Brewing Company, 16 Evans St, Hobart
Constellations, Missing Persons (VIC)