One Friday afternoon in May 2023, I was lucky enough to enter the Young Vic for the opening hours of The Second Woman, starring Ruth Wilson. Honestly, it was one of the most mesmerising experiences I’ve had in a long time.
Six weeks later I’m still in awe – the endurance, the logistics, the stereotypes, the audiences’ reactions, the creativity. Did I mention endurance?
Haven’t heard of The Second Woman? This is a piece of theatre like no other. Created and directed by two Australian women, Nat Randall and Anna Breckon, it is a 24 hour production. It consists of a seven minute scene on repeat, literally. Seven minutes of the characters Virginia and Marty (played by 100 different people) breaking up followed by seven minutes of Ruth tidying the set and preparing for the next one. Every two hours there’s a fifteen minute break. For her and for us. The audience perpetually comes and goes.
I was there for the first four hours – transfixed. Completely absorbed in noticing the differences between each repetition. Getting more and more nuanced in what wasn’t said between the two characters.
It is mostly scripted. There are some parts where Marty improvises.
Here’s how it goes:
Virginia stands to the side of the set (basically a small 1970s lounge room inside a cube), at right angles to the audience. From a corner of the cube, a man enters carrying a paper bag. He goes up to Virginia and whispers something to her.
He may or may not step away from her.
She turns around to face him.
He says something like “I’m sorry I…. You really shocked me”.
She says “How are you? What are you thinking?”
He says “I’m thinking…”
After a pause, he will usually ask her if she wants a drink.
With an affirmative response, Marty goes over to the drinks trolley. He places the paper bag down and pours two glasses of spirits.
Virginia moves across the room and sits on the chair nearest the drinks trolley.
He might pass the glass to Virginia directly, or he might put the two glasses down on the coffee table.
When he sits down in the other chair, he opens up the takeaway noodles and chopsticks from the paper bag.
He may or may not take Virginia’s out of the bag too. He may or may not pass her a set of chopsticks. He may or may not put the bag on the table within easy reach for her.
Dialogue follows as they eat the noodles:
Virginia: There’s something that I need to tell you.
Marty: Is it the end of the world?
Virginia: No, it’s not the end of the world. I’m not good enough for you.
Marty: I don’t want to hear that. [Marty will then kiss Virginia in some way].
Virginia: It doesn’t bother me that you don’t think I’m beautiful anymore”.
Marty: I do.
Virginia: Well you don’t think I’m funny.
Marty: You’re hysterical
Virginia: Well you don’t think I’m capable. All I’ve ever wanted is to be capable.
Marty: You are capable. You’re capable, and talented and pretty and…..
Virginia: And I love you.
Marty: And you love me.
Then, after flinging noodles at Marty, Virginia stands up and goes to put some music on. She stands with her back to Marty (and to us). He gets up and stands behind her and they start to dance to the music (Taste of Love, by Aura).
It can get bizarre – the dancing can be semi-erotic, it can be a good ole boogie, it can be very awkward. At some point, Virginia’s character will go limp or will take the lead of the dancing, forcing Marty this way and that.
She might end up being laid down on the floor. Or placed into one of the three chairs. Or hanging onto his leg. Or kneeling on the floor with her face near his crotch.
Once this bit is over and Virginia inevitably gets up from the floor, she walks over to the drinks trolley, opens her wallet and passes Marty a £5 note saying “Marty, I think it’s time for you to leave”.
The scene concludes with Marty taking the money (usually), saying whether he loves/loved/never loved her and leaving the set.
End of scene.
Instrumental music starts, Ruth Wilson picks up the noodles off the floor, rearranges the furniture if needed, puts the glasses back on the drinks trolley and then sits in meditation whilst waiting for the scene to start again. This time with a new man.
She doesn’t know who it will be.
They’re mostly not actors. And if they are, they’re not usually famous ones.
They’re mostly cis men, but not always. There are some women, some trans people.
They are old, they are young, they are middle aged.
They are white, black, brown – British, African, South Asian, Latinx, American, Australian.
They are working class, middle class and posh.
They are stylish, they are business people, they are geeky, they are casual.
They are domineering, submissive, funny, scary, angry, melancholic, presumptuous, wary, nervous, timid, arrogant.
The power play between them is fascinating – mostly in terms of gender, but also in terms of whose space it is (obviously it’s hers, but some men try to assert themselves in the space and disrupt the norms of the script).
The power play with the audience was also fascinating to me:
I found myself being curious at how the men in the audience were feeling about what they were seeing and hearing.
I wondered how the audience would have reacted to the same men playing the same character had Virginia been played by a woman from the global majority, instead of a white woman.
I wondered how the male characters felt when the audience laughed at them, and not with them.
I was curious about how the male characters felt when the audience, as one, gasped in shock in response to an instinctive display of male dominance over a woman.
I wondered what was motivating these men to try and get a response from the audience – whether that was a laugh, or sympathy, or anger, and occasionally disgust.
Did they always know what kind of response they were aiming for? And did the response meet that aim?
Some of the Martys I saw:
70s man – handlebar moustache, suit and tie. She pulls on the tie, at length, to remind him whose space this is.
Yorkshire man – older northern male stereotype about misogyny and down to earth. She sits in his lap forcefully to put her shoes back on, and he says “you’ve got noodles on yer bum!”.
18 year old – “but you could be my Mum, maybe it’s wrong” and “Love you!” as he leaves.
Latinx young man – puts his baseball jacket on her chair. She takes her time to work out where to sit. And then sits in her chair. He is trying to assert himself over her, but is also gentle. My sense is the audience is giving him leniency because he is South American (exotic to us).
Middle aged, middle class man – goes to kiss her on the lips with his hand on the back of her head. She pulls away and he pushes her head towards him and kisses her. Gasps of shock from the audience. She is stunned.
Anna Richardson – playing her sister after their mother died. A brilliant twist on the script. Absolutely like sibling rivalry, intimacy and scorn.
Man in a tux – “I’m thinking it’s a bit weird to be in black tie”
Younger professional man – “And you’re good at sinking these”.
Based on this amazing production, my friend Daisy and I are preparing something over the summer. We’re very excited about our collaboration!
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