production photography: Christopher Starnawski/Omnes Photography.

An empty stage is never an empty stage to a theatrical mind.  It is a place of possibilities … for passion and for ideas.  CONSTELLATIONS by Nick Payne is played on such a stage.

Marianne, a radio physicist, meets Roland, a beekeeper, at a barbeque.  Over and over they meet as multiple universes split off from their first quest for the secret of immortality.  These two will intertwine as their various lives intersect in short bursts of scenes which drop in and out of the multiverse.  It’s a complex watch and an even more complex creation.

In the current iteration there is a gifted creative team at work behind the show.  Director Victor Kalka often works with cast members Alice Birbara and Henry Hulme and on this occasion has guided his cast to a very coherent interpretation of some very difficult writing.  He has given this production an usual take, inspired no doubt by his interrogation of the text. 

Marianne is the driver the story, the questioner, the cosmic searcher and Kalka has chosen to allow that character larger and more evident state changes as the separate stories weave in and out of each other.  Roland is solid, steady and less mercurial and this is reflected in his quiet, reserved and thoughtful stability of character.  She is the ever-growing hexagon and he, the unmoving hive box.

This choice and Kalka’s staging, which includes slow motion and very well considered use of levels, foregrounds the stories over any theatrics.   His control over the light-hearted moments early in the show give the audience permission to engage and his blocking, which sometimes puts a listening character slightly above the speaker, adds interest to the bare stage communications.

Birbara is excellent in this complex and challenging role.  There is no jarred flicking from one incarnation to another, no tics or tricks.  The character/s simply arrive and we understand the changes of energy and intent that have put them in front of us.  Birbara has also fashioned some very, very clever physicality to Marianne.  She avoids touching hair or face until Marianne is vulnerable and fragile and when her hands go to her mouth, it is moving and replete with despair.  Her use of stillness is also superbly orchestrated, Roland’s bee speech is so much more poignant for what is unsaid.

Hulme holds his own in the piece, though there were problems with his low volume on occasion and his slight impassivity doesn’t always stand him in good stead, the infidelity section for example. But in some scenes, the character vibrated with an unsettledness and diffidence.  His presence is especially evident when the pair are close.  He has a very deliberate command of the physicality of their intimacy and a strong sense of masculine strength in those scenes.  This serves to understand why they are attracted irrevocably to each other.

The lighting is also understated, used merely to isolate areas.  No clour is used which deepens the shadows around the action.  In addition, there is a very shrewd use of audio in this production. (Ryan Devlin) Not just the atmospheric, like the twilight behind the first sequence but the piercing static of radio inference which sometimes slightly resonates with a voice.  There’s such a vague mechanical, empty, celestiality to the sound effect that slices the scenes out of the previous sections. It’s a terrific adjunct to the bare space.

Intricately plotted and very well acted  CONSTELLATIONS is a terrific show which deserves more than the pitiful audience it had today.   It’s running at Chippen Street Theatre until September 1st (Bookings at Trybooking) and I would encourage you to see it.  As much because it may be your last chance to see Birbara in action on Sydney stages.  According to the program notes she will travel overseas to study soon.