The Broadway and West End hit Constellations, originally penned by Nick Payne, sees a looping love story unfold between a beekeeper and a physicist. Yet this is no ordinary love story, it transcends time. Director Nico Scheepers admits he never had a clear intent to bring this play to the South African stage as an Afrikaans production. He happened upon it while browsing through the Royal Court’s catalogue and saw a play listed by a new writer who won the 2012 Evening Standard Award for Best New Play and the logline for its staging just read “a play about love, the universe and honey”. So he ordered a copy of the script, fell in love with it, and started translating it into what is now the production Hemelruim. The rest is theatre history as written in the stars.
The acclaimed Hemelruim has mesmerised many a theatre festival audience in 2016 already (myself included), and after much anticipation now comes to the Fugard Theatre to charm Cape Town theatre lovers with the phenomenal Tinarie van Wyk Loots (Marianne/Mariaan) and Paul du Toit (Roland/Roelof) as the lovers finding each other across universes.
In Payne’s original text he introduces you to Marianne and Roland through short vignettes, snap-shots of moments, and from these glimpses he still creates fluidity in the story, as they (and their connection) move through time, space and multiple universes. Scheepers took on the impressive task of adapting this ‘timeless’ journey into Afrikaans for Mariaan and Roelof, without losing any of the dramatic cadence.
“I didn’t focus on that in the beginning”, Scheepers reveals. “I just tried to focus on making the character voices seem authentic in Afrikaans. Make them as real as possible as people, whichever universe they’re in, because I think it is a core soul that echoes throughout all these parallel universes, with intent and choice painted over that. Focussing on the characters just made it come naturally.” Therein lies the heartbeat of this piece, “because it is actually the rhythm of the narrative, not the actual words, and the rhythm of the characters’ choices and how it builds up to the end” that draws the fluidity of Constellations into the Hemelruim adaptation without losing any of Payne’s vision in the process.
Not only is the Afrikaans text a triumph but so too is the performances by Van Wyk Loots and Du Toit, a formidable duo by the highest of theatrical standards. Unconventionally, Scheepers didn’t even audition Van Wyk Loots and Du Toit. The casting just happened naturally, in meant-to-be manner. “We never even read together beforehand,” Scheepers shares, “but Hennie van Greunen always tells me that plays cast themselves, and it worked out perfectly in the end, because I cannot imagine this in any other way.”
“I feel exactly the same way,” Du Toit adds. “I almost don’t want to use the words to say ‘we made it our own’ but I just can’t see Mariaan being played by anyone else.” That Du Toit and Van Wyk Loots worked for that golden connection with time spent exploring the text with Scheepers definitely shows. What Scheepers found most encouraging was that neither shied away from doing action and reaction theatre exercises, something actors often say is too drama school level for them. “They were like ‘Ja, let’s do this',” Scheepers smilingly tells, “and suddenly, everything was just there.”
“We were very willing to try that,” Du Toit elaborates on his Hemelruim experience, because the story "is a gift on the one hand, as you don’t have to just stick to subtext, and on the other hand it is really, really challenging.” Throughout the exercises and the process of becoming more familiar with the text, Du Toit saw the challenge turn into a revelation, “This is amazing!” But soon after that emotive reaction, fear to some degree also kicked in with the realisation that “this is going to be the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, and in a way it is.” With some reflection he adds, “in a way it also isn't, because it is such an original script, such an original idea that it becomes quite easy to play, as the audience is as delighted as you are with this fascinating text.”
“It is such a wonderful privilege for an actor to have one scene that you get to do several times with completely different vibes,” Van Wyk Loots says, “and that is beautiful, and with such a capable magical human being onstage with you! And like Paul said, it is an incredibly charming script and incredibly charming characters, that have a natural quality about them that appeals.”
Listening to the actors and director share what Hemelruim means to them, it is clear that, as for the audience, this too is a journey of discovery for the performers, with a new moment and connection revealing itself every time they pick up the text or take to the stage. This play takes them as much through the kaleidoscope of emotions in the constellation, as for those onlookers from the theatre seats who's imagination they capture.
That is their secret trick to keeping this love story, ever looping through parallel universes, fresh throughout every in-show loop, but also throughout the show’s run. “Every performance is different because the thing that you have to keep trying to find in it is the truth and the honesty,” Van Wyk Loots insightfully shares. “Even though each scene has very specific direction and very specific character choices, within those choices I think we really try to find the kernel of truth and honesty in it, we try. I think that’s what makes it relatable, I think we can all relate to love stories, we can all relate to the loss of a loved one, and if you can try to connect to that every time, it becomes fun to explore… And we play with it, every night we play with it.”
Honestly, I can’t wait to see them play with the Hemelruim story across universes again and again. It makes you pause and reflect, 'What is time? Are we bound to a set moment in it or never fixed?' Ultimately, all three creatives agree, one word, one moment, one pause, can change your life completely, and in that uncertainty you find the beauty of living.
Hemelruim was an amazing theatre experience on a galactic scale the first time I had the privilege of seeing it, and I am sure with all the passion and talent that is still clearly pulsing through this play as a result of the marvelous collaboration of Scheepers, Van Wyk Loots and Du Toit, that it will be just that for many other Capetonians too. Don’t miss out on the mystery of the universe as it reveals itself in love and loss with a bit of laughter too all at the Fugard Theatre until 13 May. Tickets at Computicket.