Ten years ago the Bush Theatre staged a series of short plays intended to be performed in natural light. One of these was a new piece by Simon Stephens. Staged at twilight, with the windows of the theatre thrown open to the street, it was performed by Andrew Scott. I can clearly remember the quality of the silence as he delivered Stephens’ monologue, everyone in the room breathing in unison.
Since then Scott has performed the piece at the National Theatre in London, at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and at Dublin’s Project Arts Centre. There’s a film version available online to download. Now he’s performing it once more 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 paints a picture of the rest of his family: his loving wife and the 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 the performance and Scott often nods at people in the audience. He describes a visit to his father-in-law’s house in France, during which the two men go swimming together and glimpse the nothingness beyond the sea wall, the unfathomable black.
It’s a devastatingly brutal piece, 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 such total control over the material. One second he has people are laughing along with him, the next they’re blinking back tears.
Sea Wall is 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 this, 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, this interplay between outwardness and inwardness.
Powerful as it is, the size of Old Vic 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 there’s the issue of cost to consider – when you’re charging in excess of two pounds a minute for something as is the case here, it can’t help but change an audience’s relationship to it. Even taking these things into account though, it remains a hypnotic piece of theatre, masterfully performed.