Ten years ago the Bush Theatre staged a series of short plays called the ‘Broken Space’ season. The idea was that because the leaking roof had made the lighting grid unsafe, they would put on a series of pieces that could be performed in natural light. One of these was a short play called Sea Wall by Simon Stephens.
Staged at twilight, with the windows to the old Bush Theatre thrown open to the street, it was performed by Andrew Scott. There were two other pieces on the bill that night. I can’t remember much about them but I can remember – clearly – the quality of the silence as Scott delivered his monologue, the sense of a room breathing in unison.
Since then Scott has performed the piece at the National’s Shed Theatre in London, at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, at Dublin’s Project Arts Centre. There’s also a film version available online to download. Now he’s returning to it, as part of the Old Vic’s 200th Birthday celebrations.
The play was written with Scott in mind and it shows. It begins with Scott’s character, Alex, describing his affectionate relationship with his father-in-law, a gruff retired British soldier, and gradually unfolds to paint a picture of a family, a loving wife, a daughter they adore. Scott delivers this material with conversational, and at times almost childlike, ebullience, but also complete emotional precision.
The house lights remain up throughout and he often nods at people in the audience as he describes visiting his father-in-law’s house in France. Here the two men go swimming and glimpse the nothingness beyond the sea wall, the unfathomable black.
It’s a brutal piece of writing. In part because Stephens is describing one of the most appalling things that can happen to a person, but also because Scott – working with director George Perrin – has complete control over the material. One second people are laughing along with himm the next they’re blinking back tears. It’s a magnificent act of emotional seesawing.
Sea Wall is also one of the tightest, tautest things Stephens has ever written. He builds a world and then he breaks it. It’s the details that do it, the novelistic quality of the writing: the colour of a dress, the way the sun hits the water, the way a body twists when it is falling.
The silences become longer and more drawn out. Scott rubs at his jaw, plays with his fingernails, he turns his back on the audience – and the world. He becomes, somehow, less solid. It’s fascinating to watch, especially having seen him deploy some of those techniques in Hamlet –  the interplay between outwardness and inwardness.
In truth the size of the space works against the emotional impact of play in the end. That heart-wrenching intimacy, that sense of trespass, can’t be replicated in a space of this size. Some of Scott’s gestures feel a little larger too by way of compensation, and when you’re charging in excess of two pounds a minute for something it can’t help but change an audience’s relationship to it. It remains a hypnotic piece of performance though, layered, nimble, devastating.