Monday, March 5, 2018

Theatre: The Second Woman ★★★★½

By Nat Randall and Anna Breckon

Performed by Nat Randall and others

PICA 3-4 March 

The last show in the Perth Festival’s theatre programme will be its most – and best ­– remembered. With The Second Woman, the performance artist Nat Randall and her collaborator, the director Anna Breckon, have conceived and executed an addictive experience that extends the boundaries and dramatic opportunities of one-on-one theatre.
Despite appearances to the contrary, that’s what this show is. Randall’s “leading men”– there are a hundred of them – appear one at a time in an identically scripted, unrehearsed, scene. She and the men perform it in a cube set out of which I suspect they can see only dimly, if at all. Inside that box, aware of nothing but each other, they are one on one.

The scene they act out is inspired by John Cassavetes’s 1977 play-within-a-film Opening Night, with Randall re-imagining Gina Rowland’s dipsomaniac actress character, Myrtle Gordon (and the character, Virginia, she plays), and the men, the “Marty’s”, grown from the character Cassavetes’s character plays.

So Randall plays Rowland playing Myrtle playing Virginia. Complex? You bet.

Outside the box, however, are us. We can see the actors, and we know what will – or should – happen, in precise detail, because we’ve seen it before – in many cases dozens of times.

Randall plays the scene 100 times in 24 hours, stopping only for a short “interval” every 90 minutes or so. We can come and go when we please.  

It might sound like a gimmick, but it serves a purpose.

The Randall/Gina/Myrtle/Virginia we saw early in the marathon was different toward the end. Tired, a little frayed around the edges, a little less accommodating of the man than before. A little more humorous. She’s lived one long day more, it hurts, and it shows.

And what, exactly, is the man to her? Well, it depends.

Sometimes he is her husband, sometimes she is his mistress, and sometimes he is her gigolo. He’s older than her, or younger, or about the same. She prompts him to repeat, “And I love you”, and he says, “And you love me.”

At the end of each scene (spoiler alerts really don’t matter here), she offers the man some money. Is it a payment? Or a refund?  He takes it. Or doesn’t.

As he leaves he tells her he loves her. Or has never loved her. Who is she? Who is he?

These questions abound, as do the ways the men deal with them. The audience becomes hypersensitive to the tiniest nuances, or missteps accidental or deliberate (it doesn’t take too kindly to the latter). This minutia, and the cinematic effect of the scene, is magnified by the roving and fixed cameras around the cube that capture every moment, often in excruciating close-up, on a screen to its side.

It’s part of a real technical achievement by Randall and Breckon, the video director EO Gill, the composer Nina Buchanan, lighting designer Amber Silk and the set designers Future Method Studios.

As word of mouth flashed around the festival, and people arrived and just didn’t leave, the queues lengthened. I hear it got up to two hours to get in.

What they waited for was mesmerizing, superbly executed and groundbreaking. 

And worth every second of it.