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Ruth Wilson calls a new stage role in which she will perform the same scene repeatedly for 24 hours straight an “extraordinary, once in a lifetime experience”.
The Golden Globe and Olivier award winner will star in the UK premiere of the internationally acclaimed epic The Second Woman at the Young Vic this spring. As Virginia, Wilson plays a single seven-minute scene on a loop, with 100 different men acting opposite her as her lover Marty, one after the other. Most of the men are non-actors who volunteered for the role.
“I’m curious how I can put myself in scenarios that I have no idea how to anticipate,” Wilson told The Guardian. “It is an endurance test. I don’t know how to get through it, but somehow it turns me on. It’s like nothing else I’ll ever do or have ever done, it’s an extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Created by Nat Randall and Anna Breckon, the play is an adaptation of John Cassavetes’ 1977 film Opening Night and sees the actors all follow the same short script: Marty arrives in Virginia’s sitting room with a takeaway and an apology for “so being rude’. . When Virginia seeks emotional reassurance from him, how each man chooses to provide that reassurance is an exploration of gender roles and shifting power dynamics.
Related: Opening Night: John Cassavetes’ unromantic ode to the theater is breathtaking
The scene is simultaneously remediated on a large screen via a live feed from multiple cameras. Audience members, free to come and go as they please, can see Virginia becoming more and more exhausted and wary. A Guardian review called the play “a stunning exposure of gendered power relations and emotional coercion”.
Wilson said what interested her most about the project was the “removal of artifice”. “As an actor you are always looking for those spontaneous moments that feel alive and fresh and not rehearsed. With this, no matter how much I’ll try to act as this character, four, eight, 16 hours will pass that artifice and I’ll be up there alone, at my rawest and most real, not knowing if this is a dream or a nightmare. ”
Wilson will not meet or rehearse any of the men who will star in the play – every gesture and reaction will be unplanned. “Someone said to me that real connections will be made on stage, there will be people with whom I have real chemistry that I never expected. I think the main takeaway from this show is how humanity behaves and how it surprises and upsets you in equal measure.
She will probably also form some kind of bond with the audience. “It’s a blurring of the lines between actor and audience, performance and reality.”
The actor, best known for starring in TV dramas His Dark Materials, The Affair and Luther, said the play was essentially “a break-up scene.” While the woman seems to be in a less powerful position than the men who constantly take the stage, she said, “for those men it’s also going to be an intimidating space to some degree.”
Wilson also expressed excitement about returning to the theater, the medium for some of her most celebrated roles, including Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire and Tanya in Maxim Gorky’s Philistines. The Second Woman was originally slated for a 2020 release, but production was delayed for three years due to Covid restrictions.
“Covid had a huge effect on us. It’s really changed people’s habits — I’ve definitely become a little less social,” Wilson said. “But I think people are starting to feel comfortable coming back to the theatre, sharing stories and experiencing something again… This play will hopefully attract a new audience and show that theater can be many different things .”
Young Vic’s artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah said The Second Woman “defied our expectation of the theatrical art form, revolutionizing the way we tell stories and pushing the boundaries of performance through epic event theatre”.
Other shows on Young Vic’s new spring-autumn schedule for 2023 include the UK premiere of Beneatha’s Place (June 27 to August 5), a satirical play written and directed by Kwei-Armah and inspired by the seminal 1950s civil rights drama, A Raisin in the Sun; Kimber Lee’s untitled fu*km*ss s**gon play (September 18 to November 4) which talks about the “ongoing revolution of representation” in the theater industry; and Beyond the Furthest Thing by Zinnie Harris (March 9 to April 29), which explores globalization and the need for a climate revolution.
Speaking of Beneatha’s Place, Kwei-Armah said the play was set in the revolutionary era of Africa’s first wave of independence and the battles of modern academia. “As schools and governors in the US debate critical race theory, African American history and black history, we in the UK are also faced with questions of why we still need attention for Black History and Black History Month,” he said.
The entire new program at the Young Vic was “a continuation of works about power, revolution and disruption,” he added.
The Second Woman, a Young Vic & Lift co-production produced in collaboration with Ruth Wilson, takes place at the Young Vic, London, May 19-20.