Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall star in Nick Payne’s 'Constellations' at The Duke of York’s Theatre
For someone with such a huge on-screen presence, Sally Hawkins is, in the flesh, unexpectedly tiny. Also unexpectedly tiny is the newly-thin Rafe Spall. “I ate less and moved more,” he explains. “Which is difficult because I’d rather eat more and move less...”
The two are together to promote the West End transfer of Constellations, a play that garnered some of the best reviews of the year during its run at The Royal Court earlier this year. The Telegraph called it “a pitch-perfect production of an astonishingly fine new play”, while the Independent called it an “extraordinary 65 minutes.” Both papers though struggled slightly to describe the play. Can its leads do that task any better.
“It is difficult to sum it up in a soundbit,” says Sally, “because it’s about so much but it’s really about love, it’s a love story. And it’s about parallel dimensions and quantum physics. And bees.”
“It’s a dramatic comedy at heart, about a boy and a girl,” adds Rafe. “I think you always wonder if the right one is out there for us somewhere in the universe and this is about two people who may be right for one another. The boy is a beekeeper and the girl is a quantum physicist, and the field that she works in is the multiverse, the idea that every decision you ever make , there’s another you in another universe making another decision with a hugely different outcome. And the structure of the multiverse is echoed in the play. Each moment, you see a different decision, and the outcome of that decision.”
“How it represents the different dimensions on stage is amazing,” says Sally while Rafe just grins. “It’s a bit like Sliding Doors...” he adds.
Because of the multi-dimensional nature of the play, and the clever staging, the play is very tightly structured. For both actors, particularly Sally, who’s perhaps best known for her work with the improvisation-loving Mike Leigh, it’s been quite a challenge.
“It’s very different,” she admits. “It’s so structured, it’s like different skill set to pull upon, it’s theatre as a different media. It’s down to the tiniest moment, you’re almost breathing with each other, you have to be so in tune. It’s like a dance in a way, you’ve got nowhere to hide.
“With Mike, while you improvise initially, but at the time of filming you have a finely-tuned script. It’s not all improvised, it’s finely tuned at that stage. He might keep adding more in but it’s finely tuned. But this is condensed, it has so much going on in such a small space.”
“The way Nick Payne writes feels very natural,” adds Rafe. “You learn every comma, word, beat and full stop and it sounds like improvisation. If you get on top of it, it sounds like you’re making it up.”
“You don’t like to get a word wrong,” says Sally, “because you know Nick’s word will always be better than what you come up with. Every moment, every comma, there’s a reason behind it so you want to honour it.”
With such tightly-rehearsed lines and only two cast members, the pressure on Sally and Rafe is great. One doesn’t envy an understudy stepping in for this team.
“We’ve not experienced that so far, and hopefully we won’t,” says Rafe. “It’s taken us so long to learn the play, we’ve done it 40 times in front of an audience but still it’s scary rehearsing it again with each other.”
The two rely heavily on one another during the play, in order to keep such tightly-scripted, precisely-staged action spontaneous and, in some cases, to help the other out in what Sally describes as “scary rabbit eyed” moments.
“I don’t do that much,” she laughs, “but when you’re not really thinking about and trusting all the work you’ve done... The play goes at such a pelt, it takes you, and jumps to other universes and there are moments when I look at Rafe and don’t know what universe I’m in.”
“But it always works out,” adds Rafe. “You have to be mentally active every night otherwise it just dies.”
“What’s nice about working with Rafe is that it always feels fresh,” says Sally. “He’s very good at that.”
“I do have fresh breath,” nods Rafe.
“He’s very fresh generally,” replies Sally, before the two dissolve into giggles.
Constellations by Nick Payne, directed by Michael Longhurst, is at The Duke of York’s Theatre until 5 January 2013. For tickets,