As the third play in its series titled Drama for Two — The Power of Dialogue, the New National Theatre, Tokyo, is set to stage acclaimed English playwright Nick Payne’s two-hander quantum love story “Constellations” for a three-week run from Dec. 3.
On a recent bright afternoon, we talked to the director of the work’s first Japanese production, Eriko Ogawa, 36, about her approach to this play, which the NNTT commissioned from her following the success of “Opus,” a comedy about a string quartet by U.S. playwright Michael Hollinger that she staged at its small venue, The Pit, in September 2013.
“Constellations,” which involves parallel universes, premiered in January 2012 at London’s Royal Court Theatre, which is known for its long-standing dedication to new writing. A hit with audiences and critics alike, it transferred to the West End that November, and will open on Broadway next month. In Britain, it won the Evening Standard Best Play Award and was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best New Play.
On the surface, “Constellations” is the story of two lovers wrestling with life choices that bind and separate them. Roland meets Marianne at a barbecue. He is a happy-go-lucky beekeeper and she a quantum physicist teaching at a university — but platitudes end there because Payne, who is still only 30, has other intentions in mind.
In fact he strings the characters up to quantum-multiverse theory which, as Marianne explains to Roland, is the concept that “every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.”
Roland and Marianne’s relationship plays out in a dramaturgical “multiverse” made up of repeated scenes with varying outcomes that flit from one situation to another. Their first date, for example, doesn’t work out, but one scene later it’s portrayed again as pure chemistry. Then we watch them break up, stick together, live apart, have flings, be faithful and commit to celibacy.
At every turn a new permutation arises, a new implication for a choice once made, soon to be made — or never made at all.
Payne pits the old ideal of free will against the indeterminism of quantum mechanics and watches this couple play out a tiny number of their possible lives. Ultimately, though, determinism still plays a role in the universe he presents, as the characters face their own mortality — so adding emotional depth to a piece that might otherwise have been lost to an experiment in dramatic form.
Indeed, one of the biggest challenges for Ogawa in directing “Constellations” in a Japanese context — where, in general, character drama tends toward the sentimental — has been maintaining a degree of objectivity and distance from the couple’s emotional life while exploring the concept of the multiverse to its full dramatic extent.
In this regard, the two actors — 27-year-old Anne Suzuki, who plays Marianne and Kenji Urai, 33, who plays Roland — were able to draw on experience from already long-running careers, since both have been in the theater since they were young.
We caught the couple rehearsing one of the play’s most difficult scenes, in which Marianne loses the ability to speak due to a brain tumor. Here Ogawa introduced the use of sign language; a dramatic conceit adding another layer to the linguistic universe of the play.
One final device that translates the idea of the multiverse is the set, designed by Izumi Matsuoka. The stage is laid out like a small constellation, with a blue swirling ground at the center loomed over by a tree reminiscent of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” On the periphery there is a park bench and street lamp, a living-room sofa, stairs and a table and chairs. Each small space becomes the site of a parallel universe, in what promises to be a transporting work set to sweep Tokyo audiences away.