”The Second Woman” at the Young Vic review – Ruth Wilson completes a mammoth 24-hour acting masterclass

Ruth Wilson in The Second Woman
Ruth Wilson in The Second Woman
© Helen Murray
The Second Woman is an event with a capital everything. Part sociological study, part therapy session and part theatrical masterclass, it unfolds over an almost unbroken 24 hours offering a searing insight into human nature and an uplifting one into the power of theatre. It is utterly gripping and utterly wonderful. It felt a privilege to have been there.

At its heart is an immense performance from the astonishing and heroic Ruth Wilson, who plays the same 17-minute scene with 100 different men, women, non-binary and queer people, most of them unknown, most of them not actors. There’s no rehearsal between them in advance. It’s a marathon and a miniature; each encounter a riveting picture of relationships both in life and in the art of recreating them on stage.

This double vision persists throughout the endeavour dreamt up and directed by Nat Randall and Anna Breckon in Australia in 2017 and getting its European premiere here at the Young Vic in association with the LIFT Festival. The performance takes place within a gauzed box, with red carpet and cerise curtains, a space that conjures the colours and feel of Buñuel’s Belle de Jour or Lynch’s Twin Peaks, though in fact the scene enacted was inspired by the 1977 John Cassavetes film Opening Night.

Wilson bears more than a passing resemblance to that movie’s heroine Gena Rowlands as she enters in a blonde wig and crushed red velvet dress, wheeling a drinks trolley, with three bottles of whisky and glasses. She brings in a bin and carefully places it in a corner, and then sits calmly on a chair, preparing herself for the meeting to come. Her every move is tracked by cameras, with reactions shown in close-up on a screen alongside the room.

Sonorous piano music, which changes in intensity and tone through the hours, accompanies the preparation and the close of each vignette, when Wilson painstakingly cleans up the space and resets it for the next scene. Both invocation and conclusion are part of the event; Wilson resets herself as a blank slate before each man enters.

It is mainly men she meets (though in the time I was watching, there were also two women and a drag queen), and the scene, for all its ultimate variety, is principally a study in the power relationship between the players. It has a set shape. A person playing someone called Marty walks in, whispers to Wilson, playing a woman called Virginia, and then apologises for something. They have a drink, they eat noodles. Virginia runs herself down, perhaps fishing for compliments to bolster her self-esteem, perhaps not. They dance to a funky number called “Taste of Love” by Aura. She asks her visitor to leave. They have the parting shot, but Wilson’s reaction is recorded in close-up.

Ruth Wilson in The Second Woman
Ruth Wilson in The Second Woman
© Helen Murray

Within those touchpoints, there is a lot of improvisation and the purest pleasure of The Second Woman is watching the flexibility, cleverness and playfulness of Wilson’s reactions to each new line and every action. She gets a 15-minute break every two hours, but otherwise, she is permanently in view, an act of extraordinary physical and mental endurance. She never seems to falter.

She’s faced with a rich panoply of visitors. Some of the men are aggressive, others passive; some speak in barely a whisper, others showboat creating plot lines about her being Prime Minister or about their own marriages preventing this illicit affair. One young lad apologises for her being mistaken for his mum in Tesco; another cocky man in Cuban heels and tie deliberately takes her space, sitting in her chair, imposing his presence until she revenges herself by pulling him to the floor by the tie.

Even within set lines of dialogue, the nuance of the conversation alters. I wouldn’t have believed that Wilson could find so many ways to utter the phrase “No, not the end of the world” or to respond – because she is often the silent partner in the dialogue – in so many fresh ways to the men’s protestations of her virtues. She can be quizzical, angry, curious, flirtatious all in a moment. While remaining in charge of the temperature of the scene, she takes her cue from the men: flinging herself into a drinking competition with one, into arm-circle whirring moves with another. The noodles are sometimes hurled, sometimes tipped, sometimes gently wound around a hand or stuffed into a mouth.

The audience gets onside as the scene repeatedly unfolds, warming to some of her visitors, disliking others. Knowing what is coming, they urge the action on or hold their breath in anticipation. Man No. 10 starts tender and ends up earning jeers for his dismissive exit; No. 11 gets aws for his sweetness; No. 17 is needier than her; No. 33 has his beard pulled and begins to lose his cool. While I watched, only one cleaned up the noodles and took them away with him.

Because all of human life is here in this room, and this scene, surprising numbers of men chose to make Marty confrontational and angry; some make him confused. A few forget their lines. A few are deliberately very funny. In every instance, the choices Wilson makes in playing the scene are the brave one; extraordinary levels of trust are required as she grapples with their bodies and their feelings, revealing such freedom in every moment that it takes the breath away.

It’s for this reason that the – very occasional – appearance of actors and dramatists changes the dynamic. It gives her the opportunity to relax, to know that someone else is professionally committed to carrying the scene. The dramatist Jack Thorne (Man No. 7 by my count, though my writing in the dark means it could be 6) shaped the scene as his own tragedy; his Marty was heartbroken. Tom Burke (No. 35) turns up in a hospital gown and makes Marty a lost soul, playing every line to create extraordinary tension. Sope Dirisu (No. 22) is so loving, that their conversation becomes a communion, their dance a slow jive; the audience wanted him to stay and so – Wilson brilliantly suggests – did Virginia.

I watched, entranced, for 12 hours. I could have stayed longer; I wish I had to see Ben Whishaw, Wilson’s Luther co-star Idris Elba, Toby Jones and Andrew Scott who all appeared after I left. But there was another drama unfolding in a queue outside, standing patiently through the night for up to five hours, waiting for a chance to share this remarkable experience. Everyone deserved to see this; fortunately, the event has been caught on a documentary film.

It won’t be the same, but it will be something, a confirmation of Wilson’s status as one of our most multi-faceted and adventurous actors, and of theatre’s power to create something both wise and transporting. I won’t ever forget it.