Review: Constellations. TakeOver Festival at York Theatre Royal.

Image by ‘Kirkpatrick Photography’, charlie@kirkpatrick-photography.co.uk 

By Tala Pattinson

It was the upper foyer of the York Theatre Royal, it was dark outside, the ceiling lights had been turned yellow and the carpet happened to be patterned with hexagons – we were inside a beehive for a rehearsed reading of Nick Payne’s Constellations, which takes honeybees, the cosmos, love, loss and human life as its subjects. But what is a rehearsed reading, you may ask. Also sometimes known as a script-in-hand reading, it is a piece of performance where the actors have not had to memorise the lines, and therefore have their scripts with them on stage. Whilst this may sound a little off-putting for those used to slick professional productions, an informal rehearsed reading can actually bring out aspects of a play that a regular performance may not so much. This offering particularly – which happily came with ample amounts of free tea – opted for no costume, set, props or tech, save for a string of fairy-lights, and thus drew attention solely and completely to the words themselves.

Of her reasons for putting on this reading, director Jessy Roberts said: “We wanted to do a rehearsed reading of Constellations at TakeOver for two reasons. Firstly, because the festival is focusing on the environment this year, and we all know about how important bee conservation is, the fact that Roland is a beekeeper in the play seemed very fitting. And secondly, because we wanted to make such a great play more accessible to an audience by not charging for tickets, and as it was rights-free in this rehearsed reading format it meant that we could put it on for free.”

Constellations, which premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 2012, follows the relationship of two people – Roland (Caidraic Heffernan) and Marianne (Kezia Herzog) – from their first meeting at a friend’s barbecue through the many different possible paths they go down together. Roland is a beekeeper who muses over the short but purpose-driven lives of bees, and Marianne is a cosmologist who speaks poetically about string theory, quantum mechanics and parallel universes. Roland’s bees, Marianne’s physics and Payne’s clever and well-crafted script tell us that human life is uncertain, pulled constantly in different directions, leading to outcomes impossible to predict.

There was, however, nothing uncertain about the two performances which brought this play to life on a cold Tuesday night in October. Despite being a rehearsed reading – which could easily have felt clunky or incomplete – once the performance began I quickly forgot that the actors had their scripts in hand as they both delivered confident and assured performances with all the nuance of a piece that had been rehearsed meticulously for months. Heffernan, clearly an intelligent and subtle character actor, brought great depth and individuality to each version of Roland he played, whilst cannily weaving echoes of his other selves into the physicality of his performance to create a varied but complete portrait of his character. Herzog similarly gave a beautifully endearing performance. Her shifts from moment to moment and between polarised emotional states were always done with absolute deftness and clarity. Every moment, expression and word felt significant and completely thought-through. Both were performances full of humour and sadness, fire and compassion, darkness and light.

Jessy Roberts’ direction was also expertly done. Together with her actors, Roberts created a tender, moving relationship which was touching and heart-breaking without ever straying into over-romanticism. The production held the captive attention of the audience throughout its hour-and-a-half run time despite there being no tech, no costume and no set, just two actors, their scripts and a hexagon of fairy-lights to keep the surrounding circle of audience engaged. It was, in short, quite a feat. This show was without doubt my highlight of the festival so far, and I am very excited to see what Heffernan, Herzog and Roberts all do in the future.

In-keeping with this year’s TakeOver Festival’s environmental theme, the performance was put on to raise awareness for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, details of whose work and how to support them can be found on their website: https://www.bumblebeeconservation.org/ 

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