The idea that femininity is a social performance, while masculinity simply sets the co-ordinates for the social, explains why so many classic melodramas turn on the figure of the actress, such as Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950), Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959), Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) or John Cassavetes’s Opening Night (1977).
Inspired by the latter, Nat Randall and Anna Breckon have co-created The Second Woman, which will be presented for the fourth time this month at the Perth Festival. Originally developed for Melbourne’s Next Wave Festival in 2016, it was subsequently performed at both Dark Mofo! in Tasmania and Liveworks in Sydney in 2017.
It is testimony to The Second Woman’s near perfection as performance that there can be no possibility of a plot spoiler. After all, its high-concept premise is broadly touted in the promotional materials. It is therefore no secret to anyone turning up that Randall will repeatedly star in the same scene adapted from Opening Night opposite a hundred publically solicited men across a 24-hour endurance performance that will be simultaneously remediated on a big screen via a live feed from multiple cameras.
In superficial ways, the concept is simple. A woman in a room is joined by a man. There is something unfinished between them that needs talking out. They have a drink and share the takeaway noodles he has brought. She puts on some music. They dance, then break away from each other. The man leaves. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It is the repetition that rivets.
Across the course of 24 hours, this scene of repair and estrangement plays out a hundred times with a hundred different men. Played by Randall in a cinematically iconic red dress and blonde wig that pays homage to Gena Rowland’s Opening Night character, the woman remains the same but becomes progressively more exhausted as the men keep coming at her with their conflicting demands and brute physicality.
The men are acting too, of course, having been recruited by an open call and the promise of a modest payment that becomes part of the staged scene, the gesture with which they are dismissed from the set. Throughout, the pared-back script and stage direction puts both figures tightly, at times awkwardly, through their paces but also leaves just enough room for improvisation so that each man can imprint his persona on the scene.
The effect is fascinating. Man after man is caught out performing a version of masculinity that folds under pressure and reveals something unintended but not, it turns out, wholly unexpected; something brought to light by the experimental conditions of the live scene and its relentless unfolding in real time.
Unlike Randall, the audience is free to come and go during the performance, which we saw at Carriageworks in Sydney. Having arrived for the Friday 6pm opening with the intention of peeling away after an hour or two, we found ourselves caught in a compulsive cycle of wanting to see one more and then one more enactment of the scene, whose increasing familiarity made the minute differences between individual performances twang with significance.
We are not endurance types ourselves, requiring a minimum eight-hour sleep for steady daytime functioning, so shortly after 10pm we left promising to return as soon as we woke, a plan that was literally put into play when one of us stirred at 3am and misread the time as 6am. By the time the error was discovered, we were already up and dressed, committed to returning.
Stepping on stage as a man
Although the requisite hundred men had been signed up for the performance, it seems reliable men can be hard to find at 3:30am. And so it was that Breckon came out and asked if we would be prepared to stand in for two of the missing men. Yes and no, we said without conferring, still swaddled in a dreamlike state. Thus, in an instant, we became two women queerly separated by the social performance of masculinity.
For an audience member, the gauze screens that demarcate the illuminated red box of the set bring to mind the set of a David Lynch film, perhaps Blue Velvet (1986) or Mulholland Dr. (2001), another melodrama about actresses that fails to observe coherently the rules of continuity.
But, as one of us found, from the unexpected perspective of an erstwhile man who has walked the lonely corridor from the stage manager’s silent countdown to the single door that opens into the world of The Second Woman, the gauze intensifies the performance encounter by muffling the presence of the audience. It also filters out the all-female crew roaming the perimeter of the room like cyborgs - half-woman, half-camera - under the direction of EO Gill.
The Second Woman is a very different experience when you move beyond the relative safety of being in the audience. You approach Randall, who is standing looking out the window, whisper your actual name to reset the action, kiss the back of her neck and trickily clasp her left hand with your right. And all that before you deliver your first line: “I’m sorry I was so crude to you. You shocked me.”
“Crude” was an unfamiliar word to deliver in that context and there was another challenge ahead in the run-on line: “You are capable and you are pretty and you are wonderful and you are talented and you are great and outstanding and…”
While wanting to be faithful to the script, even in a scene that had the whiff of infidelity, the feminist that persisted inside the assigned male role couldn’t help but substitute “beautiful” for “pretty” as the cameras rolled.
Although resisting preset scripts is familiar work to many women, whatever their orientation, it can still come as a surprise to many men, including most of those clustered backstage nervously going through their lines as if what they said, or how they said it, could determine the course of onstage events.
It does not seem to cross their mind that Randall and Breckon’s genius ensures that the space inside the box belongs to the half-cut blonde tottering around on heels that make her ankles swell to the point where she can no longer kick her shoes off as she did in the first 12 hours of the performance.
“It didn’t go like I expected,” said one man returning backstage after exiting the red room, cash in hand, “Acting is really hard.”
It is also really hard, it turns out, to be left in the audience to watch your female partner, ostensibly a man but in no way different to the woman you were just sleeping with, break up with another translucently beautiful woman in a staged mise-en-scene that is amplified by fractionally delayed screen projection and whatever else your subconscious brings to the scene.
Once the dancing starts and the wild crosscut editing takes off in rhythm with the music, the levels of agitation rise until Randall’s woman collapses like Frank O'Hara’s Lana Turner, quietly resetting the scene for whatever resolution this man can wring from the alternate lines she has been given: “I loved you./ I never loved you.”
Fifty bucks is all we get to show for the late-night lesson in gender and melodrama administered by Breckon and Randall: the rest is lost to the ephemeral nature of performance. So, before you answer the call to participate, know this: yes, this endurance piece is about heterosexual scenarios that seem ingrained but it is also about queer patterns of displacement and deferral.
Recycling the title of the play within Opening Night, The Second Woman subtly captures the “particular quality of twiceness” that performance studies founder Richard Schnechner attributes to performance. As some theorists — and many queers — know, in this tangled system of social enactment and psychic projection, gender is also “twice-behaved behaviour,” for men as for women.
At this historical point in time when Australian gays and lesbians are newly transacting marriage vows— the textbook example of a performative utterance— The Second Woman reminds us that the public/private performance of intimacy undoes us all.
The Second Woman is at Perth Festival from March 3-4.