Constellations: A what-if rom-com with too many parallel universes

The concept is familiar, but ultimately the multiple narratives don’t deliver

Even the cold-hearted will get the message from Nick Payne’s obsessive romantic comedy that speculating about people’s love lives is a cultural pastime. At a friend’s barbecue, Marianne (Sarah Morris), an assured quantum physicist, gets talking to Roland (Brian Gleeson), a slippery beekeeper who responds to everything evasively. She shares an oddball theory about how someone could live forever, to which he sidesteps her: “I’m in a relationship. So.” Cue blackout. Seemingly, they’re not meant to be.

When the lights go up on the same scene again, and again, many more times, we watch the exchange repeat. The conversation doesn’t grind to an abrupt halt but flows, with Roland’s relationship sounding less concrete in each telling, as he eagerly wants to know Marianne. It’s the first in a series of what-ifs, of replaying scenarios to tease their outcomes. Surely in one of these versions of the story they can make it work.

There is some logic to the play's parallel universes, as Marianne explains the theory of a quantum multiverse containing every conceivable possibility

Ever since Gwyneth Paltrow missed a train in Peter Howitt’s 1998 film Sliding Doors, the idea of alternating between different versions of the same story, each hingeing on a seemingly inconsequential event, has become a piece of popular culture psychology. Where Howitt’s film has two neatly carved storylines (what if Paltrow did catch the train?), Payne’s play is less interested in keeping count of the paths the characters could take. That sometimes allows for the will-they-or-won’t-they tension to play out in unexpected ways. For instance, when Marianne brings Roland home at the end of the night, we get to see them playfully flirt, we get to see them disappointed that they won’t be having sex, but we also get to see her apologetically offer him the floor to sleep alone, which he politely accepts. Sometimes the let-down is also satisfying to watch.

It’s a testament to director Marc Atkinson Borrull’s considered production for the Gate Theatre that this rarely gets repetitive, its approach grounded in a classic romantic pairing. Gleeson is smoothly indirect, difficult to analyse, putting his hand on his hip while trying to talk his way in and out of something, whereas Morris’s character is all cut-corners, to the point, unlikely to conceal her joy, shock and disappointment.


There is some logic to the play’s parallel universes, as Marianne explains the theory of a quantum multiverse containing every conceivable possibility. “We’re just particles,” she says, which alarms Roland, who thought he had free will. This too could be our own concern, as, without a clearly defined set of responsibilities and consequences, it’s difficult to know what the stakes are.

A primary version of the story is in here, leading towards a grave scene where Roland watches Marianne struggle with a serious illness. On reaching each major milestone, whether it be their separation, reunion or farewell, we see them go through the same motions of standing apart, leaning into the comfort of one another, reckoning with yearning and denial. The abundance of choices, the almosts and what-ifs, rob the play of its impact: it’s all been replayed to us many times before.

Until June 2nd