New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Culture
  2. Theatre
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.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

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

Content from our partners
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce
How to reform the apprenticeship levy

Topics in this article : , ,

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