Last updated: November 3, 2012 2:26 am

Exit, pursued by a quark

Do plays simplify scientific propositions? Or can the stage convey tricky concepts better than the page?
A scene from Complicite’s ‘A Disappearing Number’ (2010)©Stephanie Berger

A scene from Complicite’s ‘A Disappearing Number’ (2010)

In the history of drama there have been many challenging stage directions. Wagner’s “the Rhine overflows its banks” takes some beating, as does Shakespeare’s “exit, pursued by a bear”. But even these pale into insignificance beside the simple directive on the opening page of Nick Payne’s Constellations: “An indented rule indicates a change in universe.”

A change in universe? And this is just the beginning of the challenge. Payne’s play explores quantum multiverse theory and the possibility that, as one characters puts it, “at any given moment, several outcomes can coexist simultaneously”.

Even for scientists this is a little off the beaten track. “It’s at the forefront of theoretical physics and cosmology at the moment,” one astrophysicist tells me. For the average person, it is probably not even on the radar.

But if that suggests that the play was box-office poison when it opened at London’s Royal Court last January, the opposite is true. Far from being arid and opaque, Constellations proved both intellectually exhilarating and extraordinarily moving. It was a huge hit, earning a Harold Pinter Playwright’s Award and a West End transfer, which, so long as we don’t slip universe, will begin next week.

So how did Payne, a non-scientist, end up knee-deep in quantum mechanics? Appropriately, he says, by chance.

“I came across a documentary called The Elegant Universe by Dr Brian Greene,” the playwright recalls. “It just really threw me – the idea of infinite versions of me living out different lives [in parallel universes]. I flicked between finding it really soothing and completely terrifying ... Of course the science concentrates on the mathematics of establishing this idea, but I was interested in the emotional impact.”

Nick Payne and Michael Longhurst©Shara Henderson

Nick Payne, right, and Michael Longhurst (2012)

In Constellations, Payne approaches the theory through a love story. He takes the pivotal moments of a relationship and replays them in slightly different ways, with varying results. So Marianne and Roland meet, then re-meet, at a barbecue and her awkward chat-up line leads either into a cul-de-sac or a shared future. The implications for choice, responsibility and free will are what interest Payne.

“I didn’t want it to feel like the subject was intimidating or I was trying to do something clever,” he explains.

It’s a captivating premise. But how reasonable is it? Even between the two scientists that Payne consulted there is no clear-cut consensus on multiverse theories.

“Even within the field, it’s quite controversial,” says Andrew Liddle, professor of astrophysics at the University of Sussex. He offers a helpful thumbnail sketch of the thinking, starting with the question of what might happen beyond the area of the universe that we can see.

“The simplest hypothesis has always been that it just goes on forever, more or less the same as the region we see around us,” he explains. “Over recent years that idea has been challenged: the physical properties that characterise the universe might actually change. This idea became part of something called multiverse.

“One of the side-effects of the multiverse idea is that if the universe is really infinite, then all possible things should happen within it. Everything consistent with the laws of physics. And one thing this appears to imply is that, throughout this infinite universe, there should be essentially exact copies of our own planet, our own living room, because there is nothing to stop that happening.”

Liddle describes himself as “quite sympathetic” to the idea. “It is interesting to set it as a hypothesis and explore the consequences.”

His colleague Dr Kathy Romer, senior lecturer in astrophysics, is more sceptical. “The particular aspect that Nick explores in the play, that individual human beings could live out different scenarios, is a wonderful literary concept,” she says. “But do I think that could happen? I’d say no.

“That doesn’t take away from the play as a really beautiful way to explain the concept of a multiverse,” she adds. “It makes you think. And more than anything it demonstrates that you’ve really only got one life, so you might as well make the most of it. He’s taken a very difficult physics concept and made it into a play about two people you really care about.”

Payne is not the first to venture into taxing scientific territory. Many dramatists have written about science: some have gone further and made the actual shape of the play part of the investigation. Caryl Churchill’s A Number considered cloning, using one actor to play identical cloned siblings. In Copenhagen, Michael Frayn wrote about a meeting between physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, incorporating the theories of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle within the structure of the drama. And in A Disappearing Number, Simon McBurney created a physical expression of the abstract beauty of pure maths.

Structural innovation is also central to Payne’s drama. Rather than embark on lengthy explanations of the concept, he aims to demonstrate it through action.

“I wanted the content to be intricately linked to the form,” he explains. “The form of the play is the idea. So it doesn’t particularly explain it. I hope it tests the idea, live, in front of an audience, so they are testing it too as they are watching. It seemed to me the best way that I could try and dramatise the idea.”

But do plays inevitably simplify scientific propositions? Or can the stage convey tricky concepts better than the page, because drama is dynamic, three-dimensional and able to represent two points of view simultaneously?

Dr Romer thinks that, while less suited to examining nitty-gritty detail, theatre can open up big ideas in a vivid way. “Nobody really wants to think about probability functions,” she says. “They want to challenge themselves in terms of the concept and I think drama’s a very good way to turn people’s brains on to something.”

It still has to work as drama, of course. Director Michael Longhurst had the considerable challenge of staging Constellations. At first, he pondered the use of technology.

“I wondered, should the production try and break the laws of physics, should props appear and disappear?” he recalls. “But in the end, it felt simpler to make those universe jumps as small as possible.”

He and the actors Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins used subtle changes in dialogue, intonation and body language to indicate a change of universe. Remarkably, they managed this while keeping an emotional through-line. “It was very hard,” Longhurst admits.

His current task is to transform the staging from an intimate, in-the-round affair to a larger, end-on production for the West End. An appropriate twist – but the script remains the same.

“There is of course a version of the play that is much more research-driven,” says Payne, smiling. “A narrative about physicists who are trying to get their ideas into the press.”

Indeed, perhaps there is. But you might have to book for that play in another part of the universe.

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‘Constellations’ previews from November 9, runs to January 5 www.constellationstheplay.com

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