Ruth Wilson, star of The Affair, Luther and His Dark Materials, has performed with many leading actors, usually one at a time, but in May her endurance will be put to the test when she embarks on a marathon stage show in London playing the same scene almost nonstop for 24 hours with one hundred different men — one after the other.
“Yes, a hundred is enough,” she laughs.
“It’s a huge act of stamina,” she tells me of The Second Woman, a title inspired by a play that’s at the center of John Cassavetes’s 1977 movie Opening Night starring Gena Rowlands. ”I dunno how I’m going to get through it and that’s part of the appeal to me,” she adds.
For a split second her face looks stricken as she tells me “I will lose any sense of performance as the show goes on,” she sighs, though it’s clear she relishes the prospect.
The show runs at the Young Vic Theater, May 19-20 for a period of 24 hours, 4PM to 4PM.
It’s a gargantuan undertaking for Wilson but not one that she can fully prepare for because her legion of co-stars will be strangers to her. ”I don’t have any rehearsals with the men, I don’t meet them before,” she explains.
They get given a scene to learn and Wilson learns the same scene. ”Then they’ll come on and it’s the first time I would have met them.”
I inquire as to whether they’ll be washed. She nods in the affirmative. The Young Vic will have a process for safety checks “to make sure that they’re in it for the best intentions.”
Part of the thrill of doing it is in not knowing how they’re going to interact And how they’re going to cope. “That is exciting to me. Like, I won’t know how each of these men is going to react.
“I always thought that there would’ve been an attempt by me, initially, to perform or to create a character or to entertain the audience, or to look after these men as they come on,” but that will all disappear, she says “as my tiredness, and emotions and energy, and everything gets the better of me. Those things will erode.”
Her face brightens, ”so I think I’m quite fascinated.” She’s interested “in the erosion of the artifice of performance… and I think most actors all live for the moment that feels spontaneous.”
There’ll be moments of frustration on stage and she wonders if she’ll get annoyed with any of her co-stars as the hours tick by. “You’ll be able to, as an audience, detect those differences in me, also the same if it’s great chemistry, you’ll suddenly see us really connecting, and having a great time,” she chuckles. “It will be a study of interaction, human interaction, and intimacy as much as anything else,” she says.
The scene that’ll be played on repeat, like a sort of Groundhog Day, is a break-up scene between a man and a woman. It’ll be a study of power dynamics between genders. ”The power seems to be with the man but as it unfolds you realize the space and the environment is very much my domain, so that already creates a conflict, and the shift of that power will occur throughout the scene,” she tells me during a lively Zoom video call.
The Cassavetes film is about Myrtle Gordon, a luminous actress “who’s playing Virginia, a character in a play within a play, and the character that’s been written for her is a woman in her forties who’s sort of over the hill, so it’s about the declining agency of a woman, I suppose, and the actress Gena Rowlands plays is struggling with the idea of playing that role.”
The show focuses on just one scene with Virginia. Wilson hopes to explore the idea of “you becoming the character and vice versa.”
I ask what kind of breaks will be in place. ”Every two hours I’ll get a 15-minute break,” she responds. “It would all be about this 15 minutes. What do I do in that time? Do I meditate? Do I go outside and get some fresh air? Do I eat? Do I go to the toilet? ,” she wonders.
The Second Woman is a co-production between the Young Vic and LIFT, a biennial independent London theater festival, and was created by Nat Randall and Anna Breckon. It’s produced in association with Wilson’s Lady Lazarus production company.
The show’s world premiere was in Australia pre-pandemic. In fact, Wilson was to have played the role three years ago but it didn’t go ahead because with Covid “you can’t touch a hundred men.”
Wilson enjoys returning to the stage and has won two Olivier awards for roles in Anna Christie and A Streetcar Named Desire .
The actress is currently filming in the west of Ireland on the BBC One and Paramount Global thriller Woman In the Wall, about the horrors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries. She stars with Daryl McCormack who’s enjoying a good run with Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, and Bad Sisters; plus he’s a nominee for this year’s BAFTA EE Rising Star Award. The six-parter is created by Joe Murtagh (American Animals) and is helmed by Harry Wootliff, who directed Wilson in the feature True Things, and Rachna Suri (The Bastard Son & The Devil Himself).
McCormack plays a copper and Wilson says her story is “one of the women who lives in the village, and there’s a murder that, basically, unravels the whole past.”
She describes it as a “wild, weird, tonally unusual piece with a great cast- and we’re almost finished.” There are, as we know, a lot of demands for content “and it’s exhausting,” she says.
However, she has tasked herself with undertaking a disparate set of projects for stage and screen, that will put her in challenging environments and landscapes. “Next year is going to be choosing those sorts of things which might not be, ultimately, really popular, but they’re gonna be things that are much more interesting and challenging for me.”
Wilson offered a challenge to me as well: that I should audition to play one of the one hundred blokes appearing with her in The Second Woman. “Honestly, you should,” she urges.
I could enter stage left as bloke number 62, I jest. The name of this man is Marty “but come as bloke 62,” she utters, more than amused by the thought of such a lark.
Mud, Glorious Mud!
Heike Merker, nominated by both BAFTA and the Oscars for her hair and makeup designs for All Quiet on the Western Front, has a look of bemusement on her face as she struggles with the fact that I want to discuss the art of mud.
“I get dragged through it a lot,” I say by way of explanation. “By my Keeshond and Shiba Inu dogs,” I quickly add.
Netflix invited me to an early theater screening last summer of director Edward Berger’s reexamination of Erich Maria Remarque’s story about German conscripts hurled into the hell of bloody warfare in WWI.
It was in one of those small, basement rooms in Soho beamed onto a pretty big screen so that every muddied, wounded face was clearly visible.
Then recently, a senior executive at Netflix joked that there were so many different types of mud created by Merker to be applied to the faces of soldiers fighting in the trenches, that they should have t-shirts made proclaiming “I Love Mud.”
Dirt of the kind my dogs have no trouble finding on Hackney Marshes and on the cliffs along the coast of Hastings, East Sussex, has long been a factor in my life.
Yes, Merker agrees. “I also have a dog and I know exactly what you’re talking about.” Her canine is a cockapoo.
The difference though is that for the film “you can’t use the mud that is real. It needs to be makeup mud so that you can put it on skin”, pointing out the danger of using the real stuff when you have no clue as to what may be lurking in it. I think of rats and bugs and, well, you know.
“You have mud, you have blood, you have different textures on a battlefield,” Merker explains as we discuss the many varieties involved.
“I was on a mission to do all the mud types,” Merker notes as she listed the mud rainbow. ”Light tans, beiges, yellowish, and then it went into a greenish and then to a light grey, middle grey, dark gray, and then a dark brown. A black, of course.”
Is it thick or thin slop you’ll be needing to plaster over the faces of the exhausted soldiers? “Sometimes it might be a thinner version, if you can imagine when you’re dog is going into a muddle,” Merker adds.
There was a touch of the real stuff with particles of greyish mud from the Dead Sea. “It’s like a powder. It’s clean and we mixed it with other elements.”
Then there are packages with macadamia powder, mocha powder… “we started experimenting and the whole thing was like a painting. We had our palette.”
Kryolan, the professional makeup company, supplied pigments and other necessary substances, and they mixed up vats of squelching gunk.
“I think the makeup helped our actors understand what a nightmare the fighting was,” she says.
Her favorite on set was Felix Kammerer who plays Paul, the young man we follow. “I had to make him look tired, injured all kinds of expressions, all kinds of mud. The elephant-skin caked mud when his full face is covered,” Merker says.
Extra care had to be taken because the battlefield scenes were shot first. “We weren’t on to the beginning of the movie where they’re at school and they have to look fresh-faced until later, so you have to take care of their skin.”
She and her team ensured the cast had hot showers and hot towels after long days in the trenches.
Surely, it must have been easier designing the hair and makeup for a previous film, Crazy Rich Asians? ”We shot in Singapore and Malaysia. The humidity over there, wow,” she exclaims.
Mud is good.
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