Really good new plays are still as elusive as the Higgs boson, though more common than they were 15 or 20 years ago. The Royal Court Theatre has probably done more to bring this about than any other institution in London. This play by Nick Payne is a 70-minute two-hander started life in Sloane Square in the small upstairs theatre, and is now ending a successful and sold-out run at the Duke of York's. Like the Large Hadron Collider, West End theatres can sometimes seem too big for intimate plays on a small scale, but this one works brilliantly.
Sally Hawkins gives an unforgettable performance as Marianne, a university astrophysicist whose occasional awkwardness and struggle to find words is revealed to be an aspect of a much deeper medical problem. (Here comes the spoiler). The script visits and revisits her relationship with beekeeper Roland (Rafe Spall) at dizzying speed, taking the story in a spider's web of different directions. One moment Marianne confesses to having sex with a colleague, then it's Roland's turn. At times it seems the author has just strung alternative versions of the same scene back to back, leaving the audience to choose between them. Past, present and future merge together, cut and pasted in a series of spirals. The central idea is that time's path can fork and even double back on itself, a scientific concept borrowed from quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of relativity. Payne isn't the first playwright to be fascinated by time, uncertainty and higher physics and he won't be the last. Michael Frayn, Caryl Churchill, Charlotte Jones (whose Humble Boy also featured string theory and beekeeping) have all visited this territory.
As one who has repeatedly tried and failed to grasp even simplified versions of Einstein's theories and is totally baffled by quantum theory, I have to say with a certain amount of relief that Payne doesn't go too deeply into all this. The scientific theories may be important to him, but to me they're just a bit of fairy dust; what counts in this play is the characters. Hawkins (for my money one of the absolute best actors around anywhere) gives a mesmerising performance as the gawky Marianne, while Spall matches her perfectly. The dialogue crackles, the timing is terrific, and the transitions between scenes are done with great finesse; the play acquires a real rhythm, with a sense of a formal structure that recalls some of Pinter's best writing. Much of it is very funny, but in the second half it explodes into tragedy, as Marianne struggles with a brain tumour and investigates the idea of assisted suicide.
As her life seems to be heading inexorably towards its end, the playwright springs another trick by positing an alternative outcome; even death, the great certainty, is made to seem uncertain. Perhaps I don't fully understand Payne's argument, but it seems to me that this alternative ending weakens the overall impact of the play. Whether or not one believes in an infinite number of parallel universes or multiverses, as human beings we are either alive, or we are dead. Unlike the Higgs boson, that's a certainty, not a probability. If that is the message of the play, then it ends up rather muffled.