Though it was acclaimed at its Australian premiere in 2016/2017, The Second Woman sounded like the sort of hot-ticket that might sizzle then fizzle out; a challenge of theatrical endurance that tests the boundaries of human patience.
For 24 hours, from 4pm on Friday to 4pm on Saturday, Ruth Wilson (in a role originally taken by the show’s co-creator Nat Randall) enacted the same brief (farewell) encounter involving a woman called Virginia and a man called Marty on the Young Vic main-stage, playing opposite a different acting partner each time. A hundred faces in all – a logistical exercise fit for an Olympics ceremony.
The immediate relief was that Wilson, 41, survived this Sisyphean task (cleaning and resetting the set each time too) seemingly without collapsing from exhaustion or doing herself an injury. Small breaks were factored in every eight iterations but, even so, there was no bed back-stage to kip on, while the take-away grub brought in by Marty each time must have presented its own metabolic challenges. Yet the marathon woman was in consummate, transfixing control throughout and seemed both tired and rejuvenated, even skipping off the stage after a thunderous standing ovation.
No less importantly, the lasting revelation was that this eye-catching exercise in durational performance – predicated upon the fact that Wilson had rehearsed with none of her interlocutors – kept yielding thematic intrigue, nuance and richness despite the flimsiness of its script. Here was a fun but thoughtful real-time interrogation of the partners we could be with, the people we could be – the way we act in relationships, the tussle between the sexes, our mutability.
I initially intended to stay for six hours or so, wound up happily devouring 14 hours’ worth – taking in the starting-point and last hurrah – but I wish I’d stayed for the entire 24-hour cycle. It might have been bum-numbing but there was little question of the mind being driven to distraction by the constant repetition.
Ruth Wilson and Ben Whishaw during a scene together for 'The Second Woman', a 24 hour play (at 4am). pic.twitter.com/odUMLLQjYI
— Ben Whishaw News (@WhishawUpdates) May 20, 2023
Adding some celebrity spice to the parade of mainly masculine partners, the late evening saw turns by Tom Burke, Aidan Gillen, Edgar Wright and Ben Whishaw, the latter materialising at the particularly gruelling hour of 4am and bringing the house down with a demented take on the dance-duet.
By this point, Marty has arrived, apologised for past behaviour and partaken of some whisky (a drinks trolley sits in one corner of the cage-like, semi-exposed boudoir in which Wilson’s blonde bombshell, in elegant red velvet dress, prowls). Failing to follow up a succession of compliments with the committed words “and I love you” results in a vengeful act of noodle-strewing by the wounded Virginia and then a free-style dance-off, in which body-language speaks volumes and she challenges these peacocks to handle her properly (a pulsing power-struggle).
Some of the most famous faces were saved for the final stretch. Huge whoops accompanied the appearance of Andrew Scott, who cheekily planted a full-on smacker on Wilson’s lips (reciprocated), pranked around with the chop-sticks and even wound up being carried on the indomitable creature’s back. Toby Jones brought the requisite rumpled, pained and plaintive manner to the reject-in-waiting Marty (who always gets given £20 to leave at the end), but – shock! – exposed his chest to have his nipple kissed.
Ruth Wilson smearing Chinese food on Andrew Scott in the 24 hour play The Second Woman pic.twitter.com/nIdMf0wXgY
— Carl Woodward (@mrcarl_woodward) May 20, 2023
Whatever restraint remained at this delirious point was cast off when her Luther co-star Idris Elba showed up, who pushed the boat out on the improvised parts of his script with copious swearing, and wound up in a jaw-droppingly tight physical clinch on the floor.
This wasn’t a VIP photo-op, though; it was the mass of walk-ons (mainly non-actors) who were the real stars. They ranged from young smooth talkers and prickly old timers to irritating loose-cannons, and were met with an infinite variety of intonations and interrogative expressions from Wilson, queen of bored looks, deadpan stares and sudden warm smiles.
The only nightmare aspect was the queuing system, which left too many outside of the fun and games for hours on end. At least a documentary crew was trailing the magnum opus, so some of the magic will be seen another day.
No further performances