Across the Multiverse

Nick Payne’s award-winning play Constellations explores how our choices determine the course of our lives
In frame: Aahana Kumra and Kunaal Roy Kapur
In frame: Aahana Kumra and Kunaal Roy Kapur

Do you know why it is impossible to lick the tip of your elbow?” Marianne asks Roland—two strangers at a barbeque party. As she tries to make small talk, he cuts her off by telling her he is in a relationship. As the audience takes it in, the scene begins again. And she asks him the same question; this time he tells her he is just out of a relationship. Once again, the scene starts from the beginning and this time, one gets to know that he has a wife. Again and again, the scene starts with the same question from Marianne and ends with a different reaction from Roland, leading the same story to different situations.

Amid all this, the audience is left to ponder how different choices can lead to diverse situations. This is the world of Nick Payne’s play Constellations, one where there are multiverses of love and explorations of science, quantum theory and infinite possibilities for heartbreak or for hope.

In frame: Aahana Kumra and Kunaal Roy Kapur
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This is the world that director Bruce Guthrie, Head of Theatre and Film at the NCPA first explored in 2018 and then in 2019 with a different cast. The show was a success but then the pandemic struck and he felt that he wasn’t quite done with it yet. Now in 2024, Guthrie returns with a fresh cast and a better understanding of the possibility of multiple realities that may exist through a love story between the beekeeper Roland, played by Kunaal Roy Kapur and the theoretical physicist Marianne, played by Aahana Kumra.

Different scenes play out, propelling the story forward in variant directions. There’s flirting, infidelity, break-up and even a proposal so funny that you can’t help but laugh out loud. “In being able to make people laugh a little bit means the emotional scenes have more impact,” says Guthrie. Because when those emotional scenes come, they come thick and fast.

Marianne is detected with a terminal illness, one that makes her struggle with words and speaking. In those moments, when she is faltering or finding it hard to say the right words, the stutters or synapses as Guthrie calls them, are represented by a bolt or streak of lights that runs past the hundreds of bulbs lighting the set. The nearly 200 bulbs can also represent a starlit sky or bees that fly around, adds Guthrie, depending on how you want to look at them.

There are multiple times during the performance that the actors change their positions on the stage. They switch quickly from one emotion to another, funny to serious and vice versa. For the audience too, it is a sort of rollercoaster of emotions, smiling at something an actor says and feeling teary-eyed the next. Roy Kapur admits it is a challenge. “You can’t let the energy of the moment fall but you can’t take the emotional state to the next scene. That comes from either a physical movement or just staying true to the moment you are trying to create,” he says.

In frame: Aahana Kumra and Kunaal Roy Kapur
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Although there are many different ways of interpreting the themes of free will, choice, concept of time and multiple universes, for Guthrie, it comes down to the many varieties of love. “The fun and the tenderness emerge from the writing. The great joy is to explore all those areas and how those subtle shifts can dramatically alter the course of a day, a month or a year,” he says.

He is particularly moved by the logic that Marianne offers Roland in order to console him. “She tells him that this is all the time they always had. There’s not going to be more or less of it once she is gone. She gets comfort from that. It’s a lovely moment because all that he wants is to keep her for another day and she is trying to offer him her science, so he can let her go. Those two different kinds of love exist in the same space and time, creating a heartbreaking moment which is beautiful as well. To me, that’s what it ends up being about,” he smiles.

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