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  • Chris O'Rourke


Sarah Morris and Brian Gleeson in Constellations by Nick Payne. Image by Ros Kavanagh.


There's a buzz around The Gate Theatre currently. And if Nick Payne is to be believed, at several other moments too. The recent appointment of Róisín McBrinn as Artistic Director and Colm O'Callaghan as Executive Director has well wishers wishing them every success. As does The Arts Review. Meanwhile, the Irish premiere of Payne's award winning Constellations from 2012 is also generating a buzz. Suggesting that while incumbent Artistic Director Selina Cartmell is in the final furlongs of her tenure, she's going out in considerable style. Payne's thoughtful two hander about love, the universe, and everything in between being something of a dazzling little jewel.

Less Stephen Hawking's The Theory of Everything so much as Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, Payne embeds his user friendly science in a variety of deeply human stories. Or, rather, in variations of the one story. The one where bee keeper Roland meets data analyst Marianne. They cheat, break up, make up, then marry till death do them part. The twist in the tale being there is no one version of any one story. Rather destiny gives way to density as every possible variation of a story has its own existence in a multiverse somewhere. Each nuance seeing Brian Gleeson and Sarah Morris shift effortless between universes with an ease even Dr Strange would struggle to manage.

Sarah Morris and Brian Gleeson in Constellations by Nick Payne. Image by Ros Kavanagh.

In Payne's thought provoking script the language of love is the language of logic, serving as a lukewarm substitute for poetry. Structurally rich with musical complexity, its jazz styled improvisations on a basic melody offer refrains, repetitions and variations on themes, opening up hitherto unheard phrases, and doing so beautifully. Till even the idea of a central melody starts to lose ground. Opening a Pandora's Box of metaphysical, moral and scientific musings. To its immense credit, or to knowing when to back away from an unwinnable fight, Constellations never hammers home one position. Rather it encourages the audience to intelligently determine theirs. Even as love, when reduced to choice, can feel like a badly made bargain. Like Roland. Loveable guy, but would you want him in your corner when the proverbial fan gets hit? Much of the time Marianne wouldn't seem to either. His proposal speech on bees being something of a worrying red flag in any universe. Even as Payne's delightful humour enriches every universe it touches.

Throughout, there's something other than relativity in Payne's assessment. Scenes are never viewed neutrally. Always there's a lens through which events are being judged. Some scenes showing greater emotional or moral integrity, others signalling undesirable outcomes, based on judgements that don't feature on any Periodic Table of Elements. Yet there they are, uniting all universes, determining whether a slap, sleeping around, staying together in the darkest moments are nearer to something true. Begging the question where did the lens come from? It wasn't from The Big Bang.

Sarah Morris and Brian Gleeson in Constellations by Nick Payne. Image by Ros Kavanagh.

Under director Marc Atkinson Borrull, Roland and Marianne's relationship is infinitely restrained. Reflected in the dull efficiency of Molly O'Cathain's costumes, and realised in two shrewdly judged and perfectly paced performances. No extremities here, no wild declarations of impossible love. Just the subtle shifts that can change the trajectory of a life, or a universe. The question pressed or not pressed, the phrase uttered or left unsaid. Yet the reining in comes at a cost, neutralising the intensity and scope of possibilities. More chemicals than chemistry, love becomes a pragmatic affair, an arrangement to be negotiated and discussed more than experienced. Desire for a cuddle more likely than a wild night of abandon. Like all good companions.

When it comes to evoking a multiverse, Molly O'Cathain's cleverly raked set, with its mirrored ceiling and walls, and a multitude of chandeliers, proves a stellar piece of gorgeousness and ingenuity. Given depth and dimension by Paul Keogan's superb lighting. Performances too are stellar, slipping deftly between emotional landscapes. Brian Gleeson being instinctively aware his Roland is foil to Sarah Morris's Marianne. Her journey richer and more probing, on which Roland is but a passenger. But a gifted actor like Gleeson can allow Morris to shine without looking threatened, highlighting his own, superbly understated performance. Meanwhile Morris is simply magnificent. Plumbing depths and shifting through a wide emotional range without even changing gear.

Sarah Morris and Brian Gleeson in Constellations by Nick Payne. Image by Ros Kavanagh.

When it comes to love and physics, Constellations will leave many unconvinced. If there are countless multiverses in which, once I'm gone you will never see me again, then we're all just dust whatever version you run with, just getting through these carbonising days. In which love, like calling life a miracle, becomes a confidence trick to sweeten the bitter pill. Colonising the language of poetry under the guise of liberating it, while really making it redundant. Consequently, some will disagree with much of what Constellations proposes. Yet none can argue that it makes its arguments beautifully, deftly and with considerable charm. They've been made before, but rarely with such potency. Best seen in a sublime sign language scene, hinting at more than science understands. Think, feel, laugh, maybe even cry a little. Constellations. Currently at The Gate and at a universe near you.

Constellations, by Nick Payne, presented by The Gate Theatre, runs at The Gate Theatre until June 2.

For more information, visit The Gate Theatre


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