Durational works have a way of burrowing their way under your skin. Every moment you’re away from it – walking down city streets, seeing other performances, buying coffees, drinking wine – something niggles at your mind as you think about the work continuing, being constructed without you there to witness it.
Nat Randall and Anna Breckon’s durational piece The Second Woman, debuting at this year’s Next Wave Festival at ACMI, is a piece of stunning ambition bridging theatre, live art, and film. Over twenty-four hours, from 1pm to 1pm, with 100 men, Randall repeatedly performs a scene inspired by John Cassavetes’ 1977 film Opening Night, playing a character somewhere between Gena Rowland’s character Myrtle Gordon, and Myrtle’s character Virginia from the stage play ‘The Second Woman’ at the centre of the film. The one scene replays for hours, a stream of men coming in and going out, coming in and going out until the garbage bin is full, the whiskey bottles have been emptied, and Randall takes an interval, before returning to the room to run through it all over again.
In a coiffed blonde wig and fake eyelashes so long they cast shadows on her face, this woman stands in her small pink room, repeating the same conversation again and again with an endless cycle of men: ‘Thanks for picking up dinner,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t leave the house tonight.’ In The Second Woman, Randall wrestles this woman away from being a creation of Cassavetes and instead places her story firmly in the hands of women. Like La Tigre’s ‘What’s Yr Take On Cassavetes’, The Second Woman is simultaneously praise and critique, a performance piece that is as intellectually rigorous as it is a joy to watch.
Throughout history, stories of women, their pain and struggles, have been predominantly told to us by men. No matter how much agency Rowlands had in the process of filming Opening Night, or how commanding her performance is, we are only ever able to see her performance as it was modulated by Cassavetes’ script and direction, filmed through the eyes of Alan Ruban, and edited by the hands of Tom Cornwell.
In The Second Woman, Randall and Breckon explicitly reframe these lenses. We see female camera operators, we see a female stage manager taking the men to their place. But primarily – even as she is trapped in the small room – we see Randall utterly in control. When the male participants, none of whom Randall has met or rehearsed with before the performance, try to subvert the proceedings, they are only ever successful when Randall gives permission for the scene to change track. Her character plays through an endless series of microaggressions to control the proceedings: a withering glance here, a flinch there.
In his filmmaking, Cassavettes allowed his actors some degree of improvisation: not demanding perfect repetition from one take to the next, but rather giving his performers freedom within each moment and each performance. And yet, films are fixed and definitive products. In The Second Woman, in its permanently unfixed state, Randall and Breckon explore this shifting performance between takes. Each scene plays from the same script, each replay is a new mutation. Where Cassavetes placed a play at the centre of a film, The Second Woman places film at the centre of a theatrical experience as the live performance plays alongside a live-filmed version, cutting between close-ups and fixed mid-shots in mimicry of the original medium, but with none of the permanency: the film becomes its own performance that will only be lost as the next repeat rolls.
In the repeats, scenes increasingly become a dance between Randall the performance artist and Virginia the character; between the man as volunteer, and the man as romantic partner Marty. Through each scene, the pair negotiate, in the moment, a relationship both as actors and as a couple. As an audience, our energy stands primarily behind Randall and her extreme commitment, but we are also behind each man, as we want him to feel supported and perform well. On the rare occasions the audience turns against the man, it is because we feel he had aggressively, irrevocably, positioned himself against Randall. Here, in each negotiation of a new relationship, we are always set to stand behind the woman.
It’s a delicate balancing act for Randall to maintain control as she plays a woman trapped in her own self loathing, refusing to leave the house, drinking her way through bottles of whiskey. As the day wears on Randall’s exhaustion parallels Virginia’s alcohol abuse, she remains ever in power, reflecting the depth and control of a woman who otherwise would be written off as powerless or unstable. At different times throughout the work, the camera operators favour different aspects of the scene – but the camera is never more compelling than when it lingers on Randall.
In the cycling of scenes we see not only the way each man brings a different interpretation to the character and his lines, but also, crucially, we see the way Randall is simultaneously free in her interpretation and unwaveringly dedicated to a consistency of character and performance: the subtlest roll of her left heel on the carpet may seem like a mistake on first notice, but as the error multiplies we see the fullness of Randall’s performance. We see the complexities of her choices each time she says ‘I just want to be capable.’ When she and her scene partner take the scene off in a new unexplored direction, its power is manifest because we recognise its difference. And we watch, her commitment never falters, right to the end of the twenty-four hours.
It is only at the end of the scene that Randall veers sharply off the script provided to the men. Climbing up off the floor where the man has left her, she opens a wallet to hand each a $50 note – the fee they were promised for their performance – and asks them to leave. This payment can be read within the play as Virginia repaying the cost of dinner, but it is also a fracturing of the line between the world of the play and its construction, a reminder of who is in control. But then, in its final moments, Randall allows the briefest shift in power, with the final line choice given to the man: ‘I love you’, which is received by the audience with a sense of relief; or ‘I never loved you’, which feels like a personal stab to the heart.
What truly elevates The Second Woman, beyond its intellectual rigour, is how eminently watchable it is – I ended up staying for nine hours over five visits. The balance between Virginia’s moments of solitude and quiet reflection, the delicate dance of two people trying to negotiate an awkward relationship, the beautiful realisation of the set, the cameras filming though gauze to create a soft focus, the never-tiring replay of Aura’s Taste of Love, the melancholia of the piano, the methodology of Randall cleaning and resetting the room, the way each scene rolls into the next, into the next, into the next in an unstoppable Netflix auto-play, generating a sense of imminent reward – you can’t step away.
By maintaining such a hold over its audience, The Second Woman causes our perceptions of time to bend and shift, an hour going by in an instant. Over the twenty-four hours, the audience ebbs and flows: different people and different times of day bringing in different energies to shape the work.
Late night on Friday the audience was near riotous with laughter. The slight differences in the mens’ performances became a running joke as we waited to see where they would place the takeaway bag, how they would pour the drinks, how they would negotiate a script direction to kiss Randall. Anticipation sat heavy in the air; its release came in laughter after every choice by him, every reaction by her.
As the clock moved past midnight, interactions read more tenderly, the audience shifting into a comfortable, studious silence. By early Saturday morning, the work was gentle. Outside, the city had stopped and slept; here, night had been playing over and over and over again. A new disconnect existed between the crisp air of an empty Federation Square and the apartment built inside ACMI; a new connection was built between the audiences who would spend their Saturday in a space like this.
The final three men, somewhat miraculously, represented the three beautiful extremes of Randall’s creation. There was the scene that went completely off the rails (with Randall’s long-time collaborator Malcolm Whittaker); there was the man who participated as most had – unknowing and slightly nervous; and there was a final scene of tender emotion, with Randall surprised by her father, and dancing gently in his arms.
As this last Marty left, Randall stayed in character. One last time, the gentle piano played, and she looked out of the curtained apartment. One last time, she was abandoned. One last time, together, we sat in silence and reflection. One last time, we were asked to sit and watch this woman, utterly capable.
The Second Woman played at ACMI, May 20–21, 2016 for the Next Wave Festival.