Theatre Critic and Journalist

Nick Payne’s Window on the Soul

Nick Payne’s Window on the Soul

Published in The Stage, 13.12.2012

“I flit, if I’m totally honest,” says Nick Payne about the prospect of his first West End transfer for Constellations. “On the one hand it’s amazing. On the other it’s absolutely terrifying.”

Given the play’s setting, a string of parallel universes that allow each and every possibility to exist simultaneously, that’s so appropriate it borders on irony. Payne laughs. “Yeah, there’s one universe where I love it and another where I hate it.”

It’s also fitting that the play should have split the critics, with five-star raves jostling against nagging scepticism that it might just be, as one review put it, “Love Story with extra physics”. Both views are fair. Constellations charts the relationship between Roland, a beekeeper, and Marianne, a quantum cosmologist – exquisitely played by Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins – through its every possibility; beginnings and endings, dreamy sighs and heartaches.

Underneath is the old question: ‘Will they or won’t they?’ To which Payne can answer ‘Both.’ He can take us down dead ends safe in the knowledge that, in another universe, everything is going swimmingly.

Does he find the idea of the multiverse comforting? Again, Payne flits. It’s something he does rather a lot. He’s a pensive figure, quietly considerate and always ready to embrace contradictions. “Initially, I thought, ‘What a wonderful thing’. As I went on, I realised that it’s also a horrible thing to know that’s happening, but that you’ll never know those other lives. You’re going to have infinite versions of the fun and trivial things, but there’s also myriad versions of all the horrific things you’d rather forget.”

Fortunately, in this universe, at least, Payne’s enjoying a rich seam. Another of his plays, One Day When We Were Young, was part of Paines Plough’s Roundabout Season in London last month, while his debut If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet premiered in New York, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Earlier in the year, he won the Royal Court’s second Pinter Prize commission, for which he’s writing about missing persons.

With Constellations, too, the ayes had it. A sold-out run at the Royal Court Upstairs led to the West End and, last month, the Evening Standard Theatre Awards prize for best new play. At 28, Payne is the youngest playwright ever to win this – he’s two years younger than Harold Pinter when The Caretaker won. Other accolades will likely follow on account of the swirl of ideas – about science, free will and time – within its elegant integration of form and content.

What’s certain is that Payne’s elegant, experimental structure is no mere gimmick. In fact, there’s a degree of inevitability to it. His previous plays are full of miscommunication, missed opportunities and wrong turns. Relationships disintegrate throughout. Big issues are skirted for petty problems. There’s an undercurrent of disappointment. It’s almost as if he needed the multiverse to allow his characters to get things right.

“I’m totally aware and yet unaware of how the plays might link,” he says. “There’s something about trying to work out the best way to behave. All my characters are trying desperately to do the thing they feel they ought to be doing, but that doesn’t necessarily fit within the way their lives pan out.”

That’s particularly prominent in his first play, If There Is…, which landed the George Devine Award in 2009, making a Bush Theatre production possible. Its focus is the environment, Payne’s “favourite fear”. He’s recently taken up vegetarianism to offset “too much flying. I didn’t fly for quite a while, but decided to for work. I had a pang of guilt about it in New York and met a climate scientist who said: ‘Well, just don’t eat meat. It’s the second worst thing you can do.’

“I sort of knew that anyway, but because I didn’t fly and don’t drive, I convinced myself that I could have a steak. I eat halloumi these days.”

Returning to If There Is… for the New York run was, he says, depressing. “When I wrote it in 2006, there was a sense that the tipping point was yet to come. Going back, reading more up to date stuff, the consensus seemed to be that we’ve missed it. I think we’re fucked.”

Not that he’ll put it so bluntly onstage. “I’m less drawn to the rub-my-face-in-the-world’s-shitness kind of play. That’s not to say I dislike them, but they’re not my cup of tea. Perhaps I’m guilty of a romanticised view of the world.”

“I’m more interested in the emotional experience of a play,” he says, “of an audience being in the same room as something, than necessarily discerning meaning. If the sole gesture of a play is to convince someone of a view, to change their mind on something, I’d question whether theatre is the best place for that.”

So research for Payne – and he does a lot, often taking a year as a “gestation period where you find out what you’re writing about” and listing books in his acknowledgements – is a springboard to characters more than ideas. “The detail of what I can get from reading around a subject allows me to imagine the people that might inhabit that world and those jobs.”

Perhaps that’s why his characters are so full-bodied and, just like people, inconstant. That’s allowed him a pick of some of the best actors around.

“Ultimately, if you’re not writing for actors, I don’t know who you’re writing for. It’s always more interesting when an actor brings their ideas to a play. Otherwise it just sounds exactly as it did in my head, which is pretty much pointless really.”

Photograph: Helen Murray

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