Suzannah Conway

A brilliant thought-provoking play examines our human condition with love and humour.

Jessica Tovey as Marianne and Lucas Stibbard as Roland in Constellations for Queensland Theatre.

English playwright, Nick Payne, has fast become one of Britain's most celebrated writers for theatre. Having won The Evening Standard Best Play Award as well as being nominated for an Olivier Award for Constellations in 2012. Constellations is a fascinating and interesting play, the text concentrating on the rhythm of words as both a means of communication and progressing the narrative, while at the same time in countless scenic repetitions Payne explores the idea of a non-linear, non-chronological approach to the world.

In this parallel world of Payne’s imagination, he invents a ‘multiverse’ where ‘several outcomes can exist simultaneously'. The character of Marianne, a theoretical physicist, puts it quite succinctly, in a lovely moment where Roland is trying to seduce her, when she says: 'In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever made and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes'. To which Roland replies: 'This is genuinely turning me on', raising much laughter from the audience.

What makes this play work so well is not just the intellectual challenges it raises, which ignite both our human curiosity and desire to have answers, but that the two-hander is based within a domestic reality that we both recognise and are comfortable with, making us laugh or cry with a range of emotions in between. The play is certainly an exploration of the human condition and about people and their relationships, despite the distraction of quantum physics. The proviso in the play, of course, is that theatrically what we are seeing may have never existed and that there is probably more than one answer to any reality. An intriguing conundrum.

Roland is a bee-keeper who meets Marianne at a barbecue and they would appear to have little in common in terms of interests, background and intellect. But they fall in love, which we gather over many scenes in which roles and responses have a habit of being swapped around. Elements of the films 'Sliding Doors' and 'Groundhog Day' certainly come to mind.

The dialogue is quirky, often very funny and we warm to these characters. The constant repetition of scenes, sometimes identical in delivery and text, sometimes progressing the action in new and deliberate ways, cleverly draws you into their daily lives. 

Lucas Stibbard as Roland and Jessica Tovey as Marianne are both excellent in their respective roles and brilliantly manage to work through the repeats of their respective scenes without ever losing momentum or their place in the script. The play moves speedily through major moments of their lives – love and seduction, break-up, marriage, infidelity and illness to the spectre of death. Both actors have some wonderful moments. Stibbard’s explanation of the lives of bees before he proposes to Marianne is funny, beautifully paced and spoken and totally believable. Tovey’s continuing references to her mother’s dying days and her own fears and sense of mortality becomes increasingly more real, and ever more desperate, to the point of complete collapse towards the end. The final scene between them both where they are planning to go overseas in order to ‘cure’ Marianne is poignant and moving, defining the inevitable – that all things must end.

The actors are assisted by a stunning set from Anthony Spinaze – a brightly-lit blue Perspex floor that is deliberately non-specific and undulating, space-age and cosmic rather than real. It is divided into various size panels and shapes, with some changing colour to the lights, which the actors can use logistically to their advantage for the many repetitive scenes. A boon is the scrape of a gramophone needle that helps change direction by denoting each repetition. Ben Hughes lighting was suitably atmospheric and moody as required and he tightly shaped the square blue box of the characters’ world to define their limitations.

Kat Henry’s direction was sharp and focused, managing to drive a defined line of narrative through the many twists and turns of the script. She has interpreted Payne’s postmodern existentialism with intelligence but also humour, making Constellations a most enjoyable as well as a thought-provoking entertainment.

Artistic Director Sam Strong has started his first season well at the newly named Queensland Theatre with a choice of two intellectual, thought-provoking plays concentrating on the language of theatre and the importance of the playwright. The Flick by American Annie Baker and now Constellations by British playwright Nick Payne have had sell-out seasons in London and New York and have garnered many awards. Strong is clearly opening doors to some of the best of contemporary international theatre. As the State theatre company, though, we  need an opportunity to tell our own stories so it is good to see that next month QT will be presenting Michael Gow’s latest play, which will be in very good company.


Rating 4 1/2 stars out of 5


By Nick Payne
Director: Kat Henry 
Set & Costume Designer: Anthony Spinaze
Lighting Designer: Ben Hughes 
Composer/Sound Designer: Guy Webster
Fight Director: Niki-J Price 
Roland: Lucas Stibbard
Marianne:Jessica Tovey
Bille Brown Studio, Queensland Theatre 
Running until 9 April 2017


About the author

Suzannah Conway is an experienced arts administrator, having been CEO of Opera Queensland, the Brisbane Riverfestival and the Centenary of Federation celebrations for Queensland. She has been writing reviews and music articles for over 10 years and regularly reviews classical music, opera and musical theatre in particular for The Australian and Limelight magazine as well as other journals.