Theatre: Interview: Louise Brealey, Constellations

Steve Wright, May 26, 2015

Louise Brealey (best known to date as Benedict Cumberbatch’s silently adoring scientist sidekick Molly in Sherlock) stars as Marianne in Constellations, Nick Payne’s play exploring friendship, free will – and multiverse theory.
Sparked by the first encounter of bee-keeping Roland and scientist Marianne and by the boundless potential of their connection, Constellations visits Bristol Old Vic following sold-out runs at the Royal Court Theatre, in the West End and on Broadway. 

So, Constellations explores various possible sequences of events after Marianne and Roland meet… is that right?
We visit this couple at eight points in their relationship, and each time we visit them we go through a set of different versions of the same event: in different universes, if you will. The given circumstances might be different: someone may be single, someone may have cheated, someone’s mum might be seriously ill.
Nick Payne was inspired by multiverse theory – the idea that the universe we see is not the only universe. Very, very simply, the idea is that, because you can’t predict certain behaviours of particles (e.g. light photons, which actually change behaviour when they are observed – mind-blowing), several outcomes must coexist at the same time. Crudely speaking, there are thousands of possible futures that come out of choices we make. And all of them exist.

One review of the play notes: “Repetition is perhaps the most difficult structure from which to squeeze viable drama, but Payne has judged this well” How does Payne ensure that the dramatic tension never ebbs?
Because the game for the audience is spotting and enjoying what’s different. And of course you don’t know what’s going to happen, because you see the same scene played out with different subtexts and different outcomes.
In one scene they look like they might get together, in another someone says something stupid and it’s back to the drawing board. You often, I think, want the play to stay in a ‘good’ universe, and then you get ripped out of them. The thing works as a whole, not in a choose-your-own-adventure kind of a way, but because we do follow a story. A story which is, roughly, boy-meets-girl (over and over again) and then you follow their relationship to almost the last time they see each other.

Is the play mostly about quantum physics… or are Marianne and Roland interesting, even likeable characters in their own right?
It wouldn’t work if it was mostly about physics. It’s as much about quantum physics as Arcadia is about chaos maths. In a way it’s not about physics at all. It borrows the form of multiverse theory, and one of the themes is obviously ‘the road(s) not taken’, but it’s all about the characters. They are both very interesting and variously likeable. The joy of playing different iterations of the same character is that you can afford to be a bit of a git in one universe because you’re lovely as a bluebell in the next one.

What drew you to the play, and made you want to play Marianne?
It speaks to me, as I think it speaks to most people, about what we’re doing here and how you might want to live. That’s the reason it became such an instant classic. It’s a specific story with space for everyone in it.
But there are also technical challenges. I knew it would make me a better actor. Marianne is variously funny and foolish, clever and ignorant, sweet and ballsy, scared and bold. She is an utter joy to inhabit, and Nick’s writing, plus the direction, set, lights and movement work all mean that we know we are in something incredibly rare. It’s mine and Joe’s [Armstrong, co-star] job to tell the story as truthfully and simply as we can.

Has being in the play been, for you, a purely professional experience, or has it also affected you on some deeper level?
I think it’s impossible for a play like this not to make you question your choices. I’ve made big difficult choices that have changed me and my life forever. So the material gives you pause, yes. It makes me want to be in the moment. I don’t know how comforting I find the notion that there might well be a thousand thousand mes. But it helps me that I can’t live those lives, I can only live this one.
As an actor, you can’t shy away from material like this. You are falling in love, frightened for your life, smashed up and remade. And to a certain extent you have to access some of that stuff. I have friends and family who have faced situations like the ones in the play; I have had my heart broken. 

What would you hope audiences leave feeling and thinking about?
I would simply hope that it touched them in some way, made them laugh, and perhaps allowed them to grieve a little, if that’s what they are looking to do. Great theatre confronts us with our humanity and I really think Constellations has the power to do that.

Marianne sounds fiercely intelligent and perhaps a little obsessive – a little like Sherlock’s Molly. Is this the sort of character you feel happiest playing?
I seem to have played a lot of scientists. But they are all different sorts of people. You can’t play a job. You play a person. Or if you do, you’re not doing the part justice. You have to find the bit of you that vibrates with a part and then build around that. With Marianne, it is her passion and her fear that I have easy access to, and then I work on the stuff which is further away from me.

How do stage and screen acting compare for you – their challenges, their rewards?
I love screen work – the rhythm of the set, the camaraderie, the intimacy. And it’s amazing to reach so many people with those stories. But the theatre is where I’m happiest. The thing you feel in the room with an audience when you are both playing the game of make-believe together and investing in it together is the stuff of goose-bumps. You can lose yourself and find yourself in a theatre, in a way I have only ever experienced with books, and I love it with all my heart. 

Constellations is at Bristol Old Vic from Wednesday, May 27 to Saturday, May 30. For more info and to book tickets, visit www.bristololdvic.org.uk/constellations.html

Photos by Helen Maybanks

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