By Darby Turnbull
Nick Payne’s Constellations is an indelible draw for actors looking for an extravagantly juicy display of their range. The text depicts a time and universe bending exploration of the myriad of actions and reactions in the relationship of Marianne, a physicist and Roland, a bee keeper. The two characters have drawn such luminous casting as Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall (original production), Ruth Wilson and Jake Gyllenhaal (Broadway), Alison Bell and Leon Ford (MTC) and a recent West End Revival featured four different luxury pairings that challenged the pre conceived assumption that this couple were a de-facto white, heterosexual pair in their early thirties by rotating casting of differing ages, sexualities and races; undoubtedly uncovering new insights based on the intersections.
Payne’s use of repetition and slight alterations to change the outcome of a situation through key points in Marianne and Roland’s relationship vary in terms of their profundity; sometimes they’re comic, wry, tragic; they’re most interesting when they interrogate gender dynamics, times when Marianne will passively accept certain treatment or when she’ll be emotionally and physically assertive or when Roland will be respectful of her boundaries or otherwise turn coercive or in one case, abusive. The consistent threads; their meeting, first date, infidelity on one or both parts, reconnection and Marianne’s diagnosis of a terminal illness and decision to euthanize are all explored using her professional immersion in metaphysics as an analogue.
However for various reasons I and my theatre companion were unable to connect with Knack Theatre’s production currently playing at the Butterfly Club.
Firstly, whilst the butterfly club is one of the few venues in Melbourne that is financially accessible (if not physically accessible) to artists working on a limited budget, the spaces rarely serve as the best venues for narrative theatre. I’m yet to see a play there that manages to navigate the space successfully. However, Director Dmitry Volcon does a credible job at utilising as much of the space as possible including the audience and backstage spaces. Unfortunately it can result in some awkward and clumsy blocking and paired with some audience interaction tone and mood is difficult to sustain. The audience mostly treats the piece like an interactive cabaret when the text gives no indication of that, there are times when they’re invited into space through specific and (to my mind ill advised) interactions and others where key dramatic moments are misunderstood by individuals responding verbally to lines and in one unfortunate case, loud giggles at an unexpected moment of physical violence.
Melissa Tan as Marianne is an intelligent and calculating performer and manages to evoke the many emotional transitions with insight and clarity. She’s most definitely a talent to watch out for and I think in a stronger production she’ll thrive.
Of the two, Marianne is written with far more depth and dexterity and Tan is especially adept at portraying her internal contradictions.
Teodor Lucas as Roland by character design has slightly less presence and generally coasts on a kind of slacker charm and is less distinctive in his transitions between alternate realities. He sometimes has an intense presence when displaying anger or pain that will undoubtedly deepen with more time in the role.
Whilst both have charisma and presence in their own right, they share very little chemistry as actors.
Without feeling that chemistry in the text or performance it’s incredibly difficult to become invested in the stakes of this coupling, much less care what happens to them in various iterations. At best the night often feels like a showcase for an acting class’ promising students.
Perhaps due to an inconsistency in directional choices, the shifts in tone and mood are often clumsy; lighting and sound cues meant to convey the changes in universe are either poorly timed or not used in a way to create a thread for the audience. Sometimes there are different lighting tones, sometimes there aren’t. Sometimes use is made of an erasing sound to a redo of the situation preceding it, sometimes there isn’t.
Overall the production, despite the admirable commitment from all members of the creative team doesn’t feel ready for a paying audience. Many of the choices feel like early rehearsal innovations that desperately need refining and developing to achieve the required impact.
Knack theatre is a commendable initiative, their mission statement on their website says they act as a bridge between emerging artists and the performing arts industry, aiming to produce theatre that pushes boundaries and elevate new and underrepresented talent. All worthy and essential aims for our performing arts community to thrive. I sincerely hope they get the support and resources they need to elevate their productions to a higher standard. An audience’s patience to watch a work that feels like it’s still being developed, varies widely; it’s worth noting the audience last night was very responsive but to reiterate I wish more time and care had been spent in developing a production that felt more cohesive, challenging in the ideas and themes they were trying to convey and ultimately allowed the audience to become immersed in the story.