‘The Second Woman’: a triumph of endurance theatre

By Fiona McGregor
Nat Randall plays a five-minute scene of attempted reconciliation – with 100 different men over 24 hours

Theatre and performance art are like siblings: bonded but not necessarily loving. Independent, sometimes estranged, even antipathetic, yet often closer than either wants to let on. Then there is cinema, and its half sister video. This 24-hour endurance work, The Second Woman, by Nat Randall and collaborators, is all, and none, of these.

The set is enclosed, bordello red, a screen adjacent visible to the audience but not the players. It’s a mid-century modern lounge room, the woman waiting in it made up like Gena Rowlands in Opening Night (1977), the John Cassavetes film that inspired the work.

With 100 different men over a 24-hour period, Randall plays a five-minute scene of an attempted reconciliation. Filmed through the gauzy wall of the set, close-ups of the faces are projected onto the screen. It’s a dance of female insecurity and its traditional partner, male approval. The dance is literal at the end and as the woman is drunk, the man is obliged to carry her, often not succeeding. Randall’s falls from grace never failed to elicit laughter from the audience – always large – to the extent the pathos was sometimes smothered.

I sat with the performance (part of Performance Space’s Liveworks festival) at Sydney’s Carriageworks for four hours on the first night, finding the men surprisingly strong. Although the scene itself was slow, with long pauses in between, there was always something striking. Future Method Studio’s scrupulous set; Amber Silk’s steamy lighting; the woman’s dismissal of the man with $50, turning the intertwined history of harlotry and female performance on its head; the continuation of the cash economy in the $15 cover charge, apposite thematically and a welcome repudiation of Sydney prices; the fact the man, in all his variations, was named (Marty), but the woman, the same one, wasn’t. The little stumble each time she walked back to the table with her second drink; the ritual of cleaning up and myriad ways of making a mess; the arrival and retreat of the cameras to the set to film each scene like tides. Yet for those first hours, I found Randall hard to connect with.

It seemed to me this was the greatest ambition of the work – not staying up all night, nor serial intimacy with strangers (and sometimes friends) – but where to locate the performance. In cinema, with close-ups? In theatre, costumed on stage? In actual life, repeatedly obligated to a role whose parameters were more exposed to the audience than anyone, implicating us in this ordeal?

Rowlands and Cassavetes, real-life partners until his death in 1989, straddle three modes in Opening Night, playing actors in a play called Second Woman. Yet Cassavetes’ signature naturalism, though rawly revealing, contained its own artifice. Randall’s work brilliantly illuminates this, highlighting the daily performance of gender. “All the world’s a stage,” wrote Shakespeare, centuries before Judith Butler.

The following morning, when talented new actor Kurt Pimblett walked on stage, I was thrilled. Yet he seemed withdrawn, while Randall shone. Because Pimblett wasn’t on a job he was only being himself and actors are often shy. And I realised I’d fallen into a trap by judging the performers in this way. In its very opacity and numbness, Randall’s performance struck the right note. By the 15th hour, she had really hit her stride. Red-eyed, bleary, she received scores more visitors, the power of the work growing. Her focus and wit remained razor sharp: once, as she reached for the stop button on the stereo, cueing the man’s dismissal, he began to clean up. With a little smile, she hesitated until he finished the job. A performance for us because the finger and smile were projected onto the screen adjacent, while the hapless man, cleaning on his knees, could not see them.

Anna Breckon (direction) and EO Gill (video direction) must be commended for this cinematic sleight of hand. The script, by Breckon and Randall, glitched for me in a couple of places. You need a diamond to withstand that many readings. But what an enthralling, magnificent work. The Second Woman is as first rate as everybody says.

Fiona McGregor

Fiona McGregor is a Sydney-based author and performance artist. Her books include Suck My Toes and Strange Museums. Her latest novel, Indelible Ink, won the 2011 Age Book of the Year Award.

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