Ruth Wilson is a goddess and right now I hope she’s having a lie down. At 4pm today, minutes before I filed this article, the star of Luther and His Dark Materials completed a performance of the gruelling 24-hour play The Second Woman at the Young Vic Theatre, acting out a variation of a single short scene with 100 different men, none of whom she had rehearsed with.
There were, of course, a few famous names – actors Ben Whishaw, Sopé Dìrísù, Andrew Scott and Tom Burke; Wilson’s Luther co-star Idris Elba and Toby Jones towards the end; writer Jack Thorne and director Edgar Wright – but most of them were amateurs. They were of different shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities, and included a drag queen, the writer and presenter Anna Richardson and the editor of ES Magazine, Ben Cobb. Some were aggressive, some romantic, some comical.
Watching Wilson, 41, adjust to each new arrival was an astonishing insight into the instinctive, nuanced art of acting. The performance itself is surprisingly funny and the cumulative experience a remarkable one for the audience, which became more raucous and enthusiastic as the hours ticked by, like a festival crowd. It never, ever becomes boring. What a performer, and what a great London event.
Super-long plays are to arty types what Tough Mudder marathons are to runners. We bump a fist to our chests and say: “I was there”. It’s even better if the show is rarely performed, or a one-off like The Second Woman, which is a co-production with the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). I’ve seen Hamlets, Lears and even Macbeths that made the three-hour, 45-minute running time of A Little Life, currently on at the Savoy, seem like a fleeting thing.
The seven-hour, two-part gay saga The Inheritance, or the equally durational Angels In America from which it drew inspiration? Completed ‘em, mate: twice, in the case of Angels. Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota? Saw it at the Edinburgh Festival in 1994 and again at the National Theatre two days before lockdown in 2020.
I boast about these as I missed Peter Brook’s nine-hour Indian epic The Mahabharata in 1987 and have only seen individual works within Shakespeare’s history play cycle, which the RSC periodically mounts en masse. I was 11 years old when British theatre’s wild, antic genius Ken Campbell opened the National Theatre’s Cottesloe (now the Dorfman) with his 24-hour staging of the utterly bonkers Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson in 1977.
I didn’t see Gatz, in which every word of The Great Gatsby was performed, or Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola, or Duckie’s all-night sleepover show Lullaby at the Barbican (but thank you, fellow critics and theatre Twitter, for telling me about them).
For the – um – record, Guinness World of Records claims the longest play ever performed was an apparently unnamed 2022 performance by Indian artist Deepika Chourasia that lasted 30 hours and 33 minutes. Before that, the accolade belonged to a 23-hours-plus version of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, a one-acter that loops back to its beginning indefinitely. This, perhaps is the superlong show that is the closest DNA match to The Second Woman.
The play was created in Australia in 2017 by Nat Randall and Anna Breckon, inspired by a scene from the 1977 John Cassavetes film Opening Night: a meeting between a woman, Virginia, and a man, Marty, in a room after an earlier argument. For each of its 100 iterations the scenario is the same though there is flexibility in the dialogue (more so for the men than for the woman). And the emotional thrust of the scene is up for grabs.
For this European premiere, staged by Randall and Brecon, the action is confined to a gauze-covered box filled with faux mid-century modern furniture, circled by camera operators who film close-ups projected onto an adjacent screen. Accompanied by a solemn piano theme (which develops and deepens across the 24-hour period) Wilson’s Virginia enters the box in a blonde wig, red velvet dress and beige, mid-heeled slingbacks. She deposits a large wastebasket in the corner, then brings in a drinks trolley bearing three bottles of scotch and a number of tumblers. She sits, then stands looking out of the side wall.
Marty enters carrying a Chinese takeaway. They chat, drink and eat. Virginia fishes for compliments and each actor plants a kiss on her cheek or hand and duly delivers a different rundown of her virtues. One smug line leads Virginia to throw her food at Marty. She switches on the stereo – a 1977 funk number, Taste of Love, by Aura. Marty embraces her from behind. She reaches back to caress his head. They dance and at some point she begins to slump into him, often ending up on the floor. She then turns off the music, offers him a banknote from her purse and asks him to leave. He tells her he loves her, or doesn’t love her, takes the note or doesn’t and goes. She throws away the takeaway, tidies up the loose food from the floor and sits down again.
And that’s it, for 24 hours, over and over again, with a 15-minute break every two hours for the bin and bottles to be changed and for Wilson to go to the loo, get some fresh air and eat something. The dialogue rarely rises above a murmur yet the variety is extraordinary. Some of the men are stiff and awkward, others confident and at home on stage. Some conjured up a reason for the couple’s argument. One youth told Wilson’s Virginia “I’ve only just turned 18: that old lady in the Tesco’s thought you were my mum”. An older man asked her why she wanted to make their affair public: “You’re the Prime Minister!”
One joker complained he’d just had his shirt dry cleaned when she tossed food at him and quipped “I think I lent you £40” when she proffered a tenner. Richardson played Marty as Virginia’s sister. Ben Cobb was the first to kiss Wilson on the lips, earning a gasp of surprise followed by laughter from the crowd, and was rewarded by her dragging him round the stage by his tie. As the event wore on, Wilson herself became more daring and physical, jiving with one man, wrapping her legs round another, eating noodles from Edgar Wright’s mouth. Each time, the moment Marty embraced Virginia from behind was unbearably tense: you realised what an extraordinarily intimate act of trust this was.
Confession time: I didn’t do the whole thing but took short breaks on Friday evening and Saturday mid-morning, joining the queue of people buying day tickets to get back in each time. Because this is Britain, the queue became part of the experience, especially when two extremely drunk men turned up on e-scooters at 5am, assuming the Young Vic was some sort of underground club.
“It just felt like a once in a lifetime thing,” said Sasha Lavin, a thirtysomething freelance investigative journalist who had turned up with her friend Hannah Charrington at 4am and got in just before me at 6am. “It’s just nuts, isn’t it, a 24 hour play,” said interior designer Annie Hale, who had bought a timed 6am ticket. “I love the diversity, on stage and in the audience – it’s all ages and different types,” said her friend Grace Allen, a Financial director. “And the way she [Wilson] is able to lean into each scene not knowing the energy she will be given.”
At the end, Wilson looked exhausted but exultant and was greeted with a towering ovation. I bet she never eats noodles again.