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circa2014 constellationsOne 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

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