Exploring string theory, quantum mechanics, human emotions and the multiverse, Nick Payne’s hit play Constellations is coming to the stage in its latest iteration with a new cast and a better understanding of the dilemma between circumstance and happenstance.

By Prachi Sibal

What if you made different choices in life? What if you made them in moments of vulnerability? Would your life be the same? Would you still arrive at the same moment? Would you be surrounded by the same people? Would your relationships have the same dynamics? Then again, what if time was a constant and you could play out these possibilities in different lateral universes?

Nick Payne’s award-winning play, Constellations, brings the concepts of quantum mechanics and string theory, to a love story. The result is a series of scenes centred around a couple’s first meeting, their relationship and their lives ahead.

It was first staged at the NCPA’s Experimental Theatre in 2019 and returns this month with a new cast, Kunaal Roy Kapoor and Aahana Kumra. He plays Roland, a beekeeper, and she, a cosmologist. They have little in common and a chance meeting changes the course of their lives. They meet again, in another universe, and the trajectory of their relationship takes a different turn. Then another, and a new set of possibilities arises.

This is partly how Constellations, directed by Bruce Guthrie, Head of Theatre & Film at the NCPA, in its second outing, plays out. The stage design is like a light sculpture made up of nearly 200 bulbs that are both a representation of a starlit night sky and a reflection of the state of the characters. It also holds the key to the many universes that the characters traverse.

After a successful first run, Guthrie has returned to the play with a renewed perspective, almost like in a multiverse himself. “It’s quite rare for a director to be able to return to a show with a new cast and new dynamics,” he tells us ahead of the rehearsal schedule. A lot, he tells us, has changed since the pandemic, including his understanding of the characters’ predicaments.

At a time when multiverses are all the rage, from DC to Marvel and acclaimed films like Everything Everywhere All at Once, Payne’s play is crafted with love and easy storytelling. “If in Interstellar love is the fifth dimension, here love has many dimensions. Sometimes it’s about forgiving the other person, sometimes it’s about understanding that the other person doesn’t want to live anymore. Sometimes it’s about a person wanting to spend the night with you and deciding against it.” Guthrie also points out that Payne’s text makes the sound science behind the concept accessible without dumbing it down. “It’s like something you watch and emerge smarter from it,” he says.

The challenges of the multiverse

For the actors, though, this is fresh and challenging at the same time. Kumra, who first read the play back in 2013, considers the experience a masterclass in acting. “The challenge is that there are many times a scene gets repeated. But it is also beautiful because the actor can do it differently each time. It’s a great exercise for actors,” she says. It takes her back to her debut with the theatre group Motley, where, training under Naseeruddin Shah, she learnt the importance of staying with a script and reading it differently each time.

Here, it is the script that provides the canvas for the actors to interpret the nuances of each universe and play them out ever so subtly. “The challenge is to communicate [to the audience] that this is the multiverse and to cling on to the thread of a character. To make them feel for these two characters and the variations of their relationship,” explains Roy Kapoor who believes in spending time researching the subject of the play. “Payne has involved a very real science in the narrative. At a philosophical level, it is about the tiniest decisions you make in life that lead to a specific moment and shape your personality,” he adds.

It remains to be seen how the actors bring this amalgamation of science, emotion and repetition to life onstage with pulsating bulbs. Guthrie believes interpretation is a communal exercise and is eager to explore the many facets of a script full of possibilities with the new cast.

Living the characters

Marianne and Roland could not be more different from each other. Their worldview and preoccupations are telling of disparate lives. This is also true for the two actors who are set to play these parts. Kumra’s life as a freelancer is at odds with Marianne’s fixed job as a cosmologist. “It’s the antithesis of our work,” she exclaims adding, “I do like playing a character who has designed her life in a certain way. I have friends who have thought their careers through and live like this.”

Roy Kapoor, on the other hand, could relate to Roland in many ways. “He doesn’t have a nine-to-five job and he is a committed man. He gives Marianne the space to make her own decisions but is very attached to her without being possessive,” he explains.

However, as the story progresses, one of the characters resorts to fractured dialogue following a revelation. Sentences are left incomplete, and it is left to Roland and the audience to understand Marianne’s thoughts. “Sometimes it is important to not spell it all out. The fractured dialogue serves a purpose and keeps intrigue alive. It’s like pieces of a puzzle coming together. There is also a certain consistency to the fractured dialogue. It gives the audience something to chew on,” says Roy Kapoor. Kumra chimes in to say, “After all, that is theatre. If everything is spelled out, it would be cinema.”

It’s all personal

The scenes may be situated in an expansive multiverse, with changing realities and dynamics suspended in time, but Guthrie tells us that it is the private moments between the characters that are most interesting and will find resonance with the audience.

“The construct of the multiverse is the prism through which the light is refracted but at its heart, it is a story of a couple who meet and the trials and tribulations between them,” he says. “The play hangs itself in that moment where something happens to one of them, and something happens to both of them. And it’s how they deal with it or don’t deal with it.”

Constellations, like its name, is happenstance rooted in science. It is complex but steers clear of being didactic. Guthrie’s new interpretation with new actors has introduced an all-new set of variables to a play that relies on its very possibilities to tell many versions of the same tale.


This article was originally published in the February 2024 issue of the On Stage.