The question of “what if” is one that we ask ourselves at least once in our lifetime, whether lamenting a decision made or in a moment of idle pondering. But what if all the “what ifs” are realities in parallel universes?
That is the premise of Constellations, the critically acclaimed play by British playwright Nick Payne that just made its Malaysian debut recently.
The idea of a “multiverse” set up by Payne may have contemporary overtones but at heart, the story of Marianne the astrophysicist and Roland, a beekeeper, is an old-school love story.
“It’s straightforward and traditional,” insists Amelia Chen with a laugh. She is both the female lead and producer of the show, which is the first project under her company, Rabbit Hole Productions.
“The staging may seem complicated in that the way the story is told may seem disjointed, but there is a true line in there. Still, the idea is simple, whereby it’s just two people and the different stages of their relationship. Once you get into it, you’ll enjoy the ride,” she promises.
After meeting at a party, Marianne and Roland’s relationship develops like many romances would — with a first date, a sudden turn of events and how it goes from there. But within each arc of their relationship is an alternate reality. In some, the couple does not make it through the first meeting; in others, there is a more happily-ever-after tinge.
Calling herself somewhat of a traditionalist when it comes to theatre, Chen says while it is good that Malaysian theatre has seen an increase in original works, she has missed the more naturalistic and realist plays that Payne does so well. “I just thought that no one is really doing works like that at the moment, staging what people would consider modern classics. There is the monetary barrier because you need to get the rights from overseas, and there are all these hoops to jump through to do it,” she explains.
Chen, however, feels that it is worth the effort, and both her main collaborators agree. When she first presented Constellations alongside another work to director Qahar Aqilah to choose from, it was an easy choice for the multi-talented thespian.
“This is a love story, one that is simple and very human, yet enriched by science,” he offers. The story certainly enticed him enough to come out of a self-imposed directorial sabbatical.
“Marianne deals with the vastness of things as a physicist while Roland, with the microsystems of things. So how does the idea of the Big Bang— in this context being not a singular event but a split from another Big Bang, hence the alternate realities — affect the relationship between two people? How does it influence the other?” Qahar asks, adding that these questions attracted him to the play.
Having seen a production of Constellations in Singapore in 2017 that first piqued his interest about how he would take on Payne’s award-winning work, the director — who says there have been some interesting interpretations — decided to stay faithful to the original blueprint.
“I built a lot of my vision based on what’s written and also the interviews Nick Payne did, how he talks about the story,” explains Qahar.
Dominic Lucien Luk, who returns to the stage as Roland after last starring in The Weight of Silk on Skin in 2016, says he fell in love with the play after reading its script. “I didn’t watch the Singapore production but I heard [about it] and it made me curious, so I went looking for the script. The concept of a multiverse with so many stories within a story — I love it. So much so, it took only one WhatsApp message from Amelia for me to say yes,” he says.
Describing his character, Luk says Roland is as practical and honest as they come. “To him, everything has a purpose, everyone has a function. You do what you need to do, just do your work and life will be perfect. But one small thing goes out of place and there are all these problems. And to him, that problem is Marianne.
“He gets sucked into her world and she puts these little obstacles along the way in their relationship. Well, it goes both ways but to his eyes, it’s like, ‘Come on, just do what we need to do and things will fall into place’. He just needs to know what to do next.”
For just over 70 minutes, the audience will enter the world — or worlds — of these two people, seeing their relationship through Payne’s brilliantly written dialogue and, one would imagine, the lens of the macro and the micro; the possibilities and the impossibilities; the differences and the fundamentals.
“That’s the beauty of this play, just the dynamics of these two people. The backdrop is minimal and the stage design by Yusman Mohktar is a corner style with elements of both a proscenium and a slight sense of thrust to focus on the duo on stage,” describes Qahar.
While for most of us, the question of “what if” is tied to regret, Chen says Constellations and its belief in the idea of a multiverse allows us to look at things with a sense of relief instead. “You don’t need to regret the decisions you’re making now because another version of you will be making a different one,” she reflects.
Even if we do not buy into it, there is still this universal truth no matter what reality we are in: “We reflect on what could have been, what we could have done, the choices we made … but what I’m fascinated by is the importance to be present. Because there is no real sense of the past, or it’s not as important as the choices you make now,” says Qahar.
“At the end of the day, we can only control the here and now,” Chen nods in agreement.
Constellations opens on Sept 12 and runs until Sept 22 at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre, Empire Damansara, Damansara Perdana. Tickets are priced at RM68. Click here to buy tickets.
This article first appeared on Sept 9, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.