One of the least productive things going on in the current cultural conversation is the idea that the arts and the sciences need to be separate. A lot of this seems to be rooted in the belief that arts solely exist to entertain (or at the very least distract), and the sciences solely exist to educated or interrogate. Distinctions like that are very easy to draw, and they make chatting about those subjects easier, but that doesn’t mean they are any less wrong. Of course, the arts can teach. Of course, the sciences can entertain. They enrich each other rather than stand mutually exclusive.
Nowhere is this better explored than in British playwright Nick Payne’s Constellations, which opens on 26 July at Circa. Packed into a dense single hour, it appears on the surface to be a romantic comedy. Roland, a bee-keeper, and Marianne, who works in the field of quantum cosmology, fall for each other and battle the many forces working to keep them apart, from the fact that they’re already seeing other people to the very makeup of the universe.
You see, Constellations takes place in a sequence of diverging universes. Scenes are repeated time and time again, with slight variations making big differences. At times it almost feels like a pick-a-path adventure book with someone else doing all the choosing. Beyond a fun and whimsical structural conceit, this repetition and reworking makes the play as educational as it is entertaining. It demonstrates to us in its working the very ideas that Marianne is studying and telling us about. It manages not just to expound didactically on ideas about the quantum complexity of all of our decisions, but also to show them so we can feel them rather than just understand them.
That the arts, and theatre in particular, can be constantly reforming, restructuring itself to find the best ways to explore and transmit the latest ideas in science and research (and politics and maths, and so forth) is one of its greatest strengths. Theatre is nothing without a subject, and what more interesting ones are there than the constant new discoveries made in labs and on whiteboards across the world? That we, in Wellington, get the chance to see one of the modern examples of this in Payne’s play — especially considering the all-star team putting it on: director Rachel Lenart and actors Erin Banks and Ricky Dey — makes us very lucky indeed. Hopefully, the local theatre scene will take Constellations’ cue and start looking beyond the family table for inspiration.
Constellations by Nick Payne, directed by Rachel Lenart and starring Erin Banks and Richard Dey, is at Circa Two from 26 July to 23 August. Find out more and book at circa.co.nz.