Imperial College London

Physics hits the West End


Constellations still

Imperial's Professor Mike Duff (Physics) was recently involved in the major West End play Constellations, which explores parallel universe theories.

Science is no stranger to cinema, being a regular staple of Hollywood blockbusters ever since Star Wars in the 1970s through to Prometheus last year. But without computer-generated special effects it has rarely found its way onto the stage.

Now a major West End play Constellations takes up the mantle, tackling ideas of multiple universes. Writer Nick Payne originally took inspiration from a US documentary, The Elegant Universe, in which Professor Mike Duff (Physics) made an appearance, talking about parallel universe theories.

However, the first Mike heard of all this was when he received a call from Nick asking him to come to rehearsals and give a presentation on physics to the actors and also to write an introduction piece in the programme for theatregoers.                              

“I was delighted, I don’t often get involved in the arts and theatre, so I went along to the Royal Court and met the lead actors Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall, and they did a little rehearsal for my benefit.

It’s a boy-meets-girl story with a twist, in that they meet over and over again in different universes, so the same scene is played out but with subtly different outcomes and subtly different emphases; in one universe she’s unfaithful to him and in another universe he’s unfaithful to her.

He’s a beekeeper, and she’s a quantum physicist, so they don’t understand each other’s work at first. So when she describes to her boyfriend what she does, Nick and the crew wanted to make sure that it made sense – would a quantum cosmologist actually say that? And for the most part it was ok, they got it right.

The cast asked a lot of sensible, penetrating questions. As would be the case with most people, these are totally alien ideas, actors don’t normally worry about theoretical physics – and how much do you really need to know for the dramatic purpose of the play? But in fact they were meticulous in getting the physics absolutely right.”  

After meeting the crew, Mike went onto see the play in full at the Duke of York's Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, and was positively impressed.   

“I had read the script and wondered if it could really work on stage, but in fact the production and the way they’ve put it together – it’s wonderful. There are about a hundred scene changes which they handle with lights, balloons and stagecraft. A nice anecdote about the script is that it in the instructions at the beginning it says: ‘change of font means change of universe’.”

Constellations, which runs from 9 November to 5 January at the Duke of York's Theatre scooped best play of 2012 at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. It will now move to New York.




Andrew Czyzewski

Andrew Czyzewski
Communications and Public Affairs

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