Constellations and the games people play

Janna Ramos-Violante and Ashley Dowds in Constellations. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

Janna Ramos-Violante and Ashley Dowds in Constellations. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

This play is about cosmology and bee hives; it’s also about life, loss, love and death; taking chances and letting go. It is about the games people play. But above all else, it is about celebrating the veteran directing chops of Alan Swerdlow, revealing him at his most intelligent best.

In Constellations, he directs two of this country’s arguably more underrated performers: Ashley Dowds, who never seems to age and who has recently served as an eminently watchable foil opposite the ilk of Brenda Sakellarides and Keren Tahor; and the charming Janna Ramos-Violante, who we’ve oft fallen in love with in her capacity as director and performer over the years.

Honoured as the London Standard Weekly newspaper’s play of the year in 2012, this quiet, wisely pared down work grapples with relationships with a rapier-like pen that casts its words in a curiously unusual rhythm, which quickly disabuses you of the promise of a soppy love story. It has that illusion of cynical lightness that director Sylvaine Strike achieved with Pregnant Pause in 2009, but also that touch of magic conveyed by Athena Mazarakis and Craig Morris in Attachments (1-6), a danced essay about love.

Neither dance piece nor pregnancy romp, Constellations is about the brain’s frontal lobe as the seat of language. It touches the terror of genetic inheritance. It is constructed through a series of exchanges, which in the vein of the technique of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett are repeated and re-used as a metaphor for the kinds of games people play in conversation and the things they say and say and say again, without ever saying what they mean.

The medical curve ball in the work’s denouement will grab you by your humanity. The tentative conversational choreography around marriage and life and death and communication are handled with a devastatingly subtle hand. Suddenly, you are forced to look at both Mary Ann (Ramos-Violante) and Roland (Dowds) in new and increasingly more sophisticated if not tragic lights. It’s not very different from watching a cast pebble make rings in a puddle.

But it is the light directorial hand, the presence of an off-pink cardigan, a bench and a trellis and the gentle diversion from logical chronology that doesn’t let any aspect of this tight work run away with you. It’s almost farcical in its repetition of lines, almost annoying in how the give and take rests on a few words re-articulated, but it never reaches farcical proportions, nor annoying ones. It holds fast onto the issues at hand. It contains all the elements: happiness, cruelty, confusion, pain and horror, but it enfolds its contents with a sympathetic yet acerbically sophisticated knowledge of the interface of humour with tragedy, leaving you at peace and sated. A beautiful, beautiful work.

  • Constellations by Nick Payne is directed by Alan Swerdlow and performed by Ashley Dowds and Janna Ramos-Violante, at The Studio, Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, until September 28.
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