‘Once in a lifetime’: Ruth Wilson to star in 24-hour show The Second Woman at Young Vic

<span>Photograph: Shane Anthony Sinclair/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Shane Anthony Sinclair/Getty Images

Ruth Wilson has called a new stage role in which she will perform the same scene repeatedly for 24 hours straight an “extraordinary, once in a lifetime experience”.

The Golden Globe and Olivier award winner will star in the UK premiere of the internationally acclaimed epic The Second Woman at the Young Vic this spring. Playing Virginia, Wilson will enact a single, seven-minute scene on loop, with 100 different men performing opposite her as her lover Marty, one after the other. Most of the men are non-actors who have volunteered for the role.

“I’m curious about putting myself in scenarios that I have no idea how to anticipate,” Wilson told the Guardian. “It’s an endurance test. I don’t know how I’m going to get through it, but that excites me in some way. It’s like nothing else I’ll ever do again or I’ve ever done, it’s an extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

The play, created by Nat Randall and Anna Breckon, is adapted from John Cassavetes’ 1977 film Opening Night and sees the actors all follow the same short script – Marty arrives in Virginia’s sitting room with a takeaway and an apology for “being so crude”. When Virginia seeks emotional reassurance from him, how each man chooses to give that reassurance is an exploration of gender roles and shifting power dynamics.

Related: Opening Night: John Cassavetes' unromantic ode to theatre is stunning

The scene is simultaneously remediated on a big screen via a live feed from multiple cameras. Audience members, who are free to come and go as they like, can see Virginia become progressively more exhausted and wary. A Guardian review called the play “a stunning exposure of gendered power relations and emotional coercion”.

Wilson said what interested her the most about the project was the “removal of artifice”. “As an actor you’re always looking for those spontaneous moments that feel alive and fresh and not rehearsed. With this, no matter how much I’ll try to perform as this character, four, eight, 16 hours in that artifice will go and it will be just me up there, at my rawest and most real, not knowing if this is a dream or a nightmare.”

Wilson will not meet or rehearse with any of the men that will be in the play – every gesture and response will be unplanned. “Someone said to me there will be real connections made on the stage, there will be some people I have real chemistry with that I’d never anticipated. I think the main takeaway of this show is how humanity conducts itself and how it surprises you and upsets you in equal measure.”

She will probably end up forming some kind of bond with the audience as well. “It’s a blurring of the lines between actor and audience, performance and reality.”

The actor, best known for starring roles in TV dramas His Dark Materials, The Affair, and Luther, said the play was at its very essence “a break up scene”. While the woman seems to be in a less powerful position than the men constantly entering the stage, she said, “for those men it will also be an intimidating space to some extent”.

Wilson also expressed excitement at returning to theatre, the medium for some of her most celebrated roles including Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire and Tanya in Maxim Gorky’s Philistines. The Second Woman was originally scheduled for 2020 but production was postponed for three years due to Covid restrictions.

“Covid had a huge effect on us. It really changed people’s habits – I’ve certainly become slightly less social,” Wilson said. “But I think that people are starting to feel comfortable returning to the theatre, sharing stories and experiencing something again … This play will hopefully bring in a new audience and show that theatre can be many different things.”

Young Vic artistic director, Kwame Kwei-Armah, said The Second Woman defied “our expectation of the theatrical art form, revolutionising how we tell stories and push beyond the boundaries of performance through epic event theatre”.

Other shows on the Young Vic’s new spring-autumn 2023 programme include the UK premiere of Beneatha’s Place (27 June to 5 August), a satirical play written and directed by Kwei-Armah and inspired by the groundbreaking 1950s civil rights drama A Raisin in the Sun; Kimber Lee’s untitled fu*k m*ss s**gon play (18 September to 4 November) which speaks to the “ongoing revolution of representation” in the theatre industry; and Zinnie Harris’s Further than the Furthest Thing (9 March to 29 April), which explores globalisation and the need for a climate revolution.

Speaking about Beneatha’s Place, Kwei-Armah said the play sat in the revolutionary time of the first wave of independence across Africa and the battles in modern day academia. “As schools and governors in the US debate critical race theory, African American history and Black history, we in the UK are also facing questions around why we still need a focus on Black History and Black History Month,” he said.

The full, new programme at the Young Vic was “a continuation of works about power, revolution and disruption”, he added.

  • The Second Woman, a Young Vic & Lift co-production, produced in association with Ruth Wilson, is at the Young Vic, London, 19-20 May.