The Second Woman review – Ruth Wilson’s spellbinding theatrical marathon

Even before Ruth Wilson stepped on to the stage, this extraordinary 24-hour production had confirmed itself as “event theatre”. Audiences queued outside the Young Vic, sometimes for hours, hoping to catch the European premiere of Nat Randall and Anna Breckon’s 2017 experimental play, a co-production with London international festival of theatre, in which the same scene is repeated 100 times between Wilson and a different partner.

Wilson plays Virginia, who is splitting up with her lover, Marty, who comes in with a Chinese takeaway. They have an awkward exchange and a boogie before she sends him packing. The pair interact in a glass box, filmed by camera operators and projected on to a screen. The audience, which comes and goes throughout, is encouraged to switch seats in order to see this couple from different perspectives.

Of the 100 participants who play Marty, most are not trained actors but there are surprise appearances from high-wattage celebrities including Ben Whishaw, Idris Elba, Andrew Scott, Toby Jones and Sope Dirisu. They are received with whoops from the audience and glints of recognition, and mischief, from Wilson. There are some industry notables too such as writer Jack Thorne and film-maker Edgar Wright. Not all are men. Anna Richardson brings one of the most inspired scenarios by playing an accusing sister, turning the scenario into a dysfunctional family drama.

While Wilson has scripted lines, the others are free to improvise, which leaves her potentially vulnerable, both as performer and character. She responds quickly, and dynamically, to elaborate backstories that cast her as mother, older lover, even prime minister. There are, increasingly, knowing references to tiredness, to which she keeps a straight face.

The knowledge that there have been no rehearsals with her partners brings a frisson of excitement, and we wonder how far they will go to catch her out. After the first two hours, Wilson has grown bolder with the format and it is Virginia who seems the more dangerous, unpredictable party. She introduces long silences, glaring or responding to the most overbearing men with counter-assertions of control. A hug becomes an act of violence, a dance a wrestling match, but some exits are filled with sudden tenderness too. There are holes in the narrative from which questions gradually emerge. What has happened to this couple? How is Virginia the second woman? Who has committed infidelity? And who is being exploited? Not all of them are answered but they never lose their intrigue.

Inspired by a scene in John Cassavetes’s 1977 film Opening Night, which features an actress who feels a waning sense of her power, the play explores gender norms and power dynamics. The scene buzzes with the final, betraying emotions of a breakup. A few men lunge in for a kiss and she deflects this effectively with exaggerated contortions. Some – mostly younger men – tell her she is scary or gibber nervously. Others build an emotional earnestness or intensity so when they tell Wilson they will always love her, even as she dismisses them, it feels like a small, self-contained tragedy.

The audience, early on, begins to laugh – with nervousness, it seems – and Wilson amps up the weird, dark absurdism in the dance which becomes a feat of physical comedy as time goes on. Wilson’s character lollops in the men’s arms, sometimes dragged around them like a rag doll or automaton, variously floppy or stiff, and at other times her movements are charged with comic ferocity and dominatrix energy. Lovers’ strokes turn into maulings, of sorts.

Wilson’s stamina is astonishing to witness as the hours roll by – and as the waves of tiredness descend on me. Even as an inveterate insomniac, I began to feel clumsy and weak.

This is a production that cannot be judged purely on what happens on stage. There is the drama of the audience as well – its turnover through the night, how the collective response changes. Part of the experience feels like it is about congregation itself. There is, at the start, the intense camaraderie of a shared experience, with one neighbour turning to talk to another.

Despite my tiredness, which turns to desperation as I hit my first wall at 2am, I am never bored by the same replaying scene or the song, Taste of Love, by Aura, which repeats 100 times too and has a muzak sound. I am transfixed not only by Wilson but by the interaction itself, same yet different every time, and always magnetically unpredictable.

Related: ‘Once in a lifetime’: Ruth Wilson to star in 24-hour show The Second Woman at Young Vic

I have expected for the crowds to ebb away in the early hours and have brought my travel pillow and a small blanket, to stretch myself out at around 4am. But to my surprise, and then alarm, there is never an empty seat next to me. It becomes evident that the auditorium will stay jam-packed. The piano music, in between scenes, composed by Nina Buchanan, offers comforting interludes. The only frustration is the acoustics – the sound is faint, almost mute, in some parts of the room. In the last eight hours, I am wet with sweat and feel horribly dehydrated: in the short breaks we are given away from our seats, I have prioritised eating, drinking coffee, and the toilet queue. (Wilson herself has 15 minutes off every two hours.)

Twenty hours in, I am feeling the toll. But I am also entirely captured by what is happening and feel a sense of exaltation in the final hours. The experience of time changes throughout the show. Some hours feel long, others like minutes. As soon as the morning crowd starts filing in, I feel their sense of freshness.

The queue, meanwhile, just keeps on building, trending on Twitter and snaking not just outside the building but also coiled within it. And the audience keeps cheering Wilson on, clapping after every scene, stamping their feet. Wilson kept in character throughout, only looking out towards us – through tears – for a lengthy standing ovation at the end. What hard earned tears, and adulation.