This production of a piece of contemporary playwriting has the makings of a truly unique and unforgettable Oxford theatre experience. Based conceptually on multiverse string theory, we see the development of a relationship between two characters in terms of alternate possibilities – in any given scene, we see different eventualities acted out. For example, we see the initial meeting of the two at a barbeque with different results – him having a wife, them getting on well, and her coming off oddly as well. Without giving too much away, this novel concept is then used to create heart-rending scenes where we see both the very best and very worst of situations juxtaposed within minutes of one another. This emotional complexity of showing subtle variations of scenes requires an intense and sustained pair of performances from the two lead actors, Calam Lynch and Shanon Hayes. They both live up to this rather difficult task, giving transfixing performances as Roland and Marianne respectively. I would say this was some of the best acting I had ever seen, with subtle nuances of emotion cleverly shown in every facial expression to give an authenticity to a concept that threatens to sink under the weight of its own pretensions.
Watching the ‘creative process’ of this play was particularly enlightening in terms of how this natural seeming relationship was constructed. Instead of going straight from the script, they improvised and riffed over the themes of the play, then returned to the script and moulded it in their own image under the charismatic direction of Sammy Glover – creating a highly naturalistic, genuine development of emotional connection between the two leads. This effectively heightens the emotional stakes of the play beyond what is intrinsically written into it, making it all the more harrowing, comic and bittersweet by turns.
Not only is this the first time this play is being performed off Broadway, but it is also being performed in the round, adding yet another level of novelty to this already envelope-pushing play. It is also worth noting that the presence of only two people on stage, speaking dialogue, does theoretically run the risk of creating an excessively still theatrical space. However, this is no hinderance to the effortless characterisation and does nothing to damage audience interest in the progression of the play. This is done to heighten the intimacy of the audience to the characters which, as with many of the ‘tricks’ of the play, effectively attempts to bring the audience to become completely involved in the fates of the protagonists. When sat in such close proximity to the acting, the quality of the acting became even more apparent – every word was delivered with such sensitivity that it rendered even the preview completely unforgettable. Who knows how powerful an impact the show proper will leave!
Some may feasibly complain about the piece being too jarring. Each alternate possibility of each scene comes straight after one another, with special effects being used to signify when a change of possibility is occurring. This is a daunting task, to make it flow effortlessly, yet I think the completely natural dialogue helps to ensure that no audience member will be left confused or otherwise dissatisfied with the effectiveness of the play at showing its deep emotional core. The challenges of the play are not only made so they are not challenges, but become fundamental facets of its unique and undeniable appeal. The possible pretentiousness, the stillness, the lack of extra people on stage – all are inverted to become fascinating revelations of the play’s emotional progress.
Ultimately, this play is bold in its writing by Nick Payne, but is even bolder in its execution. Here I think the old adage that ‘Fortune favors the bold’ applies; and I am very optimistic that this will pay off in one of the most exciting pieces of theatre to come to Oxford.