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Lovers Discover Parallel Universe, Rylance Flips Gender

Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall in "Constellations" by Nick Payne at the Duke of York's Theatre in London. Payne's play deals with the idea that a quantum multiverses, or parallel universes, are created by every choice we make. Photographer: Johan Persson/Jo Allan PR via Bloomberg

Nov. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Suppose your life forked into simultaneous versions at every decision. “Yes” would take things one way, “no” another. There would be further forks, and billions of concurrent lives.

Nick Payne’s quirky speculative romance “Constellations,” about a love story in parallel universes, has transferred to London’s Duke of York’s Theatre from the Royal Court.

The play is a 70-minute two-hander between quantum-theory specialist Marianne (Sally Hawkins) and blokey bee-keeper Roland (Rafe Spall). Their first meeting, a comical affair at a garden barbecue, is played out several times.

In one version Marianne is screwball and gauche. In another, she’s trying too hard. In another, she’s posh and satirical. Roland is politely offhand; then immediately flirtatious; then merely affable. In one of the variants they hit it off.

The same rewind-replay trick is used through the following scenarios which present their developing relationship. There are several versions of the first date, an infidelity and a tango lesson.

Details are changed for comic effect. When Roland tries to find out whom Marianne was unfaithful with, his outraged question “Not the one with the center parting?” subsequently becomes “Not the one with dandruff?” and then “Not the bald one?” In one version, it’s Roland himself who’s had the illicit fling.

Cosmic Balloon

Tom Scutt’s simple set -- a floating cloud of gorgeously-lit balloons against a black background -- reflects the playful and cosmic elements of the writing.

In one scene Marianne explains that the existence of parallel universes (the “multiverse”) may be a way of reconciling the mutually incompatible, but demonstrably correct, quantum and relativity theories.

It’s one of those nice plays where you come out feeling a bit cleverer than you went in.

The script lays down a gauntlet to the two actors, who sometimes have to repeat their lines over and over with subtle changes. Hawkins takes the challenge and flies with it. She can make a 180-degree turn in mood and characterization in a blink, and it’s a joy to watch her.

When Marianne gets a brain tumor, Hawkins’s different reactions of fear, anger, and confusion are extremely touching.

Spall does a good job, without reaching her level of transformation. Each of his Rolands bears the same similarly affable, blokey stamp.

Intellectual Dazzle

For all the intellectual dazzle, the ideas behind the writing and their realization don’t ultimately meld. We don’t see billions of possibilities, just a few relatively (forgive the pun) predictable ones. That all these reality-replays may be the result of Marianne’s malfunctioning brain seems a bit of a let-down too.

Those are quibbles. A concise play which prompts cosmic speculation long after the final speech is still a very refreshing and welcome thing. It’s both amusing and stimulating, which is always a bonus. Rating: ****.

Richard, Olivia

Mark Rylance, fresh from his triumph in “Jerusalem,” is now appearing in the title role of “Richard III” and as Olivia in “Twelfth Night” (which also includes Stephen Fry as Malvolio).

Tim Carroll’s Shakespearean period-practice stagings have transferred from the Globe Theatre to the West End.

The action in both cases takes place in front of a high wooden panel which supports a musicians’ gallery. Props are kept to a minimum. 1590s-style costumes are made using traditional techniques. The acting ensemble is exclusively male, just as in Shakespeare’s time.

With such a pared-down aesthetic, everything relies on the quality of the acting and the interaction of the ensemble.

Some performances are luminous. Rylance’s Richard is by turns a comedian, a tyrant, and a vulnerable little boy. Paul Chahidi is amusingly earthy as the quick-witted maid Maria in “Twelfth Night,” and Samuel Barnett makes a proud and confident Queen Elizabeth. If Stephen Fry is not quite the last word in Malvolios, he’s enjoyably pompous and uppity.

Then there are the others. Rylance’s Olivia is too often played for exaggerated laughs. One moment he minces like a demure geisha; the next he’s putting out like a puppy on heat. Peter Hamilton Dyer underplays Feste so much, it’s as if he’s forgotten that it should be a comic role.

Fortunately there are far more hits than misses, and, after their runs at the Globe, both productions have a bedded-in feel. It’s a delight, too, to be offered a glimpse into the theater of 400 years ago.

“Richard III” rating ****, ‘Twelfth Night” rating ***.

“Constellations” is at the Duke of York’s Theatre. Information: or +44-844-871-7615

“Richard III” and “Twelfth Night” are in repertoire at the Apollo Theatre. Information:

What the Stars Mean:
*****     Excellent
****      Very good
***       Average
**        Mediocre
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

Muse highlights include Richard Vines on food and Jorg von Uthmann on Paris art.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on this story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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