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23 May 2023

Ruth Wilson’s The Second Woman is a mesmerising feat of endurance

Over 24 hours, as Wilson played the same scene with 100 different actors, the repetition became addictive – and profound.

By Alona Ferber

When I walked into London’s Young Vic at 4.41am on 20 May to see the sell-out 24-hour play The Second Woman, I felt like an intruder. On the stage, a man and a woman were eating a Chinese takeaway. I could barely hear them. The crowd laughed but I didn’t get the joke. 

This, the European premiere of Nat Randall and Anna Breckon’s 2017 play, is theatre as gimmick and spectacle. Even those with advance tickets queued – some, including me, at ungodly hours – for a seat, as other audience members vacated theirs. Virginia – played by Ruth Wilson, in blonde hair and a red velvet dress – is breaking up with Marty. For 24 hours, Wilson repeated the same seven-minute scene, inspired by the play within John Cassavetes’ 1977 film Opening Night. Marty was played by 100 different actors with whom Wilson had never rehearsed.

It goes like this: he enters, apologising, bearing food. She is not good enough for him, she says, looking for reassurance. They dance, the spectacle variously grotesque, funny, moving, absurd. She tells him to leave.

I entered partway through Ben Whishaw’s turn, but most of the actors were not professionals. Wilson shifted in response to each. Sometimes she played it comically. Sometimes she was aggressive or mocking. It was mesmerising because of the idea that Wilson would embody this character for 24 hours, her face, blown up on a screen next to the set of her red-hued flat, showing her tiredness. And because none of us – not even the actors – knew what would happen each time. 

The play is touted as an exploration of gender dynamics, but this seems too simple. It’s about relationships as performance, the line between acting and reality. It’s about the clichés we adopt. It’s about endurance. With repetition I grew hooked. At home hours later, waking from a nap, the scene replayed in my mind, and I considered how many hours of performing Wilson had left. I longed to be there, still watching.

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[See also: A Tony Blair rock opera? Get me out of here!]

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This article appears in the 24 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Crack-Up