‘Oooooo,’ coos the middle-aged box office lady with a wink, as I pick up my tickets to the World Science Festival talk. I’m in Brisbane to see playwright Nick Payne and physicist Brian Greene battle out the multiverse. ‘Lucky you. They’re dead sexy.’
London-based Payne is in in town to open his two-hander West End hit Constellations, an exploration of love and physics. Smart, certainly. But sexy?
Earlier in the day, I meet him in a café. Stumbling in, dripping and bedraggled from a recent downpour, Payne is the epitome of fumbling British bashfulness. He has an unruly mop of brown hair, square tortoiseshell glasses, and red socks. ‘Oh my God, bloody hell,’ he says plonking down, as he apologises profusely for, well, not much.
Payne, 33, the son of a council surveyor and a primary school teacher, started his career working in London’s The Old Vic as an usher. By night he would show theatregoers to their seats. By day he’d write.
‘It’s shit pay,’ he recalls. ‘But you get free tickets, a discount at the bar and you could nick all the sandwiches. So it had its perks.’
Payne put a time limit on himself – ‘I did say, if I hit 30 and I’m not earning any money, I should stop. Thankfully, I didn’t hit 30.’
In 2012 Constellations premiered at the Royal Court Theatre to unanimous rave reviews (it later transferred to Broadway in a feted production starring Ruth Wilson and Jake Gyllenhaal). The play is ground breaking not just for its form: two actors on stage who repeat the same scenes over and over again, each with a slightly different outcome in just over 70 minutes. But for its subject matter: the theory that our universe is one of many others known as the multiverse. Or, as protagonist Marianne, a quantum physicist, puts it, the idea that ‘several outcomes can coexist simultaneously… every choice, every decision you’ve ever made and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.’
If Constellations tackles big, complex, near unfathomable concepts, it does so through a lens we all understand –romantic love. Homing in on Marianne’s relationship with her gauche beekeeper boyfriend Roland, different eventualities unfold: they break up and get back together; break up and stay apart. A marriage proposal, re-played seven, eight times, is accepted, laughed at, cried at, rejected.
And then there’s the spectre of death, hanging over it all. When illness strikes, Marianne tells Roland. Or doesn’t tell him. Or is angry. Or accepting. Or gets better. Or doesn’t. In one scene, the couple are deaf and speak in sign language. The stage is completely quiet, only for a gargled cry of grief to escape once the blow has been delivered. When I left the theatre into the foyer, stunned and speechless at what had unfolded, several members of the audience were crying.
Payne was inspired to explore the concept of the multiverse after coming across Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe. ‘The more I read, the bigger the universe, the more I found I was just [drawn to] the tiny thing of getting home to someone I love,’ he says. ‘If I stayed in the vastness of [the multiverse] for too long, I found it quite scary – beautifully scary, but scary none the less.’
Time is central to Constellations, which explores a fundamental contradiction: that human beings feel time forcibly, relentlessly, move forward and yet it is simply a human construct and a framework placed on an indifferent cosmos.
‘The basic laws of physics—the b-basic laws of physics don’t have a past and a present. Time is irrelevant at the level of a-atoms and molecules. It’s symmetrical,’ stutters Marianne to Roland. ‘We have all the time we’ve always had. You’ll still have all our time… There’s not going to be any more or less of it… Once I’m gone.’
‘Yeah,’ says Payne, wiping his hands over his chin, when I ask him how he comes to grips with this paradox. ‘No one knows. I find that really baffling – you’ve had centuries, but how can you know what time is?’
Battling this – and providing an ending in a world of boundless possibilities – was death, ‘the most finite thing I can think of’ (Payne’s father died of a heart condition in 2010). ‘My day to day living of life feels like the clock is only ticking in one direction and alas, inevitably,’ he stops and laughs: ‘This is getting really dour. Inevitably, it will expire and that’s the end of me.’
Now, though, time is moving forwards in Payne’s favour. His plays, including 2014’s The Art of Dying, a monologue Payne performed himself, and 2016’s Elegy, continue to win accolades and awards at home and abroad. He is now in the process of writing a six-part BBC series about a psychiatrist who embarks on an open marriage.
Science has provided him with his meatiest material. An epigram to Constellations, sourced from Peter Atkins’s book On Being reads: ‘Why should the universe have a purpose… there is a considerable grandeur, I think, in the presence of our spectacularly majestic universe just hanging there, wholly without purpose.’
‘It’s not the job of science per se to explore the concept of free will and it’s not the job of science to offer me comfort,’ reasons Payne. ‘How I feel about it I increasingly think is irrelevant.’ Because, as he points out, if you take the multiverse to its most extreme position – that a million different lives are all being played out simultaneously in a million different universes – it defuses the idea central to Western thought that we are somehow unique.
‘In my life I think it’s just me and I’m a special snowflake,’ says Payne, deadpan. ‘It turns out I’m not a special snowflake, there are a lot of snowflakes just like me. And that,’ he adds, ‘is fine.’
Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore is a regular contributor to The Spectator Australia