Writer: Simon Stephens
Director: Simon Stephens and Andrew Porter
It is likely that one of the major creative outputs of the lockdown will be a proliferation of “one man” performances and films in which a protagonist will explore the emotional and physical effect of their incarceration. As inspiration, writer Simon Stephens has made a filmed recording of his smash play Sea Wall which opened to rave reviews when it premiered in 2008 at the Bush Theatre and then revived at the Old Vic. In this 2012 film, available on YouTube for one week, Andrew Scott gives a masterclass in how an actor can use the camera to both shape and open-out a performance.
Alex switches on the camera and begins to recount a recent trip abroad to see his father-in-law with girlfriend Helen and 8-year old daughter Lucy, where he talks about each of them with warmth and love, repeatedly distracted by memories of earlier times and philosophical discussions about the existence of God. After the host shows Alex the “sea wall”, the family relax into a holiday they will never forget.
Co-directed by writer Stephens and Andrew Porter, this production is set in a plain, slightly messy rehearsal space with a view of residential flats beyond the window. Its lack of charm or dressing becomes integral to the mood that Stephens and Porter are creating, one that lives, emerges and shatters entirely within Alex’s memory. The fixed camera is partially incorporated into the story and we see Alex effectively switching it on in order to begin his tale.
What follows is incredibly smart; rather than move the camera, cut to another position or zoom-in for revealing close-ups, instead Andrew Scott physically moves around the room, sometimes closer to the camera when Alex has a happy or comic anecdote, while at other times he moves back into the room or leaves the shot completely. Rather than divest the piece of its intensity, this very technical understanding of film enhances Alex’s sense of isolation and trauma, adding a confessional subtext to this unbroken 30-minute monologue.
There is something incredibly raw about the simplicity of the filming style that matches the appearance of unrehearsed conversation addressed partly to the camera but largely to himself. Stephens’ writing lives beautifully on screen as a result, the non-linear narrative filled with wonderful digression, time loops and overlaying thoughts as Alex’s recollections jumble and spill out. The scenario Stephens creates is vivid and full; of the former soldier and maths-teaching father-in-law insisting on God’s omnipresence, in the routines of Helen and Alex’s life together and the warm waves of the sea on their holiday. The specificity of the details Stephens includes, the very ordinariness of the family makes the low note of impending disaster so painful.
Andrew Scott is extraordinary – no surprise to anyone who has seen his Hamlet or Gary Essendine – hinting throughout that this little tale doesn’t end well without ever giving too much away. The management of film technique is almost more impressive, focusing directly on the camera to create the initial intimacy but not daring to look us in the eye as he increasingly struggles with conflicting emotion. He pulls at his brow and cheeks, turns to the far end of the room and stops repeatedly to gather his thoughts when just saying the words becomes an insurmountable challenge. As Alex loses himself in the memory, Scott is totally inside this wonderful performance.
The sea wall itself is the point at which the seabed suddenly falls away to reveal a chasm of darkness and hopeless fear. The metaphor is a strong one in the play, so entirely reflecting Alex’s emotional and psychological experience in this brief but thoughtfully filmed drama. For actors and writers working on their own one-man shows, Sea Wall sets the standard and it will be hard to beat.
Streaming here until 18 May 2020