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Sea Wall/A Life review at Public Theater, New York – ‘two transfixing performances by Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal’

Jake Gyllenhaal in A Life at Public Theater, New York
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This double bill allows audiences the opportunity to see two great actors starring in intimate solo shows by playwrights with which they have a creative history.

Tom Sturridge launched his London stage career in Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2009, winning the Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for Most Promising Newcomer. Jake Gyllenhaal made his Off-Broadway stage debut in Nick Payne’s If There Is I Haven’t Found it Yet, before going on to star on Broadway in Payne’s Constellations.

Both actors are comfortable with the rhythms of each playwright’s use of language, and the way the writing shifts, sometimes suddenly, between life and death, joy and pain.

Sea Wall, originally written for and performed by Andrew Scott, is an initially tender, eventually devastating study of a man who suffers a catastrophic loss. Sturridge’s withdrawn demeanour from the beginning foreshadows the tragedy that will follow. He brings a casual yet precise informality to his performance: there’s a coiled intensity to the way he intentionally reins in his emotions, as if unchecked they might overwhelm him (and us).

Yet as each moment of this story unfolds with the churning inevitability that it’s not going to end well, the pay-off from this accumulated sense of dread is overwhelming. Sturridge is a more naturally introverted actor than Scott, and the quiet sense of stifling containment he brings to this painful story makes it all the more powerful. There’s no big dramatic meltdown; just a gradual shedding of his emotional skin.

A Life, originally performed by Payne himself at the Donmar Warehouse in 2013, also embraces both life and death: the loss of a beloved father and the birth of a child. Gyllenhaal switches adeptly between the two stories, told in parallel, for a piece that’s full of detail, with the actor providing his own layered and competing sense of loss and wonder.

Gyllenhaal, a life force as a stage and screen actor, brings both a musicality and muscularity to the role as he tells this emotionally naked story.

Carrie Cracknell directs an intense, precisely calibrated production, played out on a set by Laura Jellinek that uses the Newman’s own back wall and extends it to create a two-tiered environment.

In a recent interview, Cracknell spoke of their intention to create “a kind of hymn to theatre and a hymn to storytelling in a really pure form”.  The result is a transfixing and beautiful evening of intimate storytelling.


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Two major screen stars return to the stage in a pair of impressively intimate solo performances