The monologue has once again become a popular theatrical form online. Understandably so as they are relatively easy to produce in the current circumstances and are often concerned with introspective examination – something we are all becoming rather adept at. The announcement a couple of weeks ago that the BBC are recreating the majority of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads caused quite a flurry of excitement – well, in this household anyway. Two newly released short monologues this week caught my attention and as neither are sticking around for long, I thought I would quickly bump them up to the top of my reviewing list. Both are about aspects of parenthood and both, to varying degrees, are predicated on a sad turn of events; there are some interesting parallels to be drawn.
Sea Wall was written by Simon Stephens specifically for Andrew Scott to perform in 2008. It was revived for just two weeks at the Old Vic in 2018. In between, this film version was shot. And although it is undoubtedly a film rather than a stage performance what we see was carried out as one continuous take giving it all the impetus and continuity that usually differentiates the two mediums. In essence the camera is the audience to which Scott’s character, Alex, confides his tale. It all starts off rather low key: Alex appears a bit nervous, clasping and twining his hands (even a bit giggly) as though he has something to get off his chest – which, of course, he has. He appears to have a relatively idyllic life as a successful photographer and is happy in his relationship with his partner, Helen. His first words are of his young daughter, Lucy, on whom he clearly dotes. But he also talks of his father in law, Arthur, a retired soldier/maths teacher and it seems, at first, that he is going to be the focus of the narrative. The family visit Arthur in his retirement home in the south of France and he and Alex go diving. Here, Stephens, introduces the central metaphor of the piece – the sea wall, the sudden shelving of the seabed into an unfathomable abyss. And that is what Alex is going to face in his life; joy and contentment are replaced by an emptiness and desolation which is incredibly moving to watch. The man who confessed to “being an emotional wreck” just from watching episodes of ER finds it increasingly difficult to articulate his pain and admits to “having a complete and total inability to cry” having constructed his defences around himself. A sea wall, of course, is also something which forms a barrier between man and the natural world. Long (daringly long) silences punctuate the later stages of the monologue; it becomes emotionally draining to watch as you try to imagine the hole in the middle of his life which he insists is palpable.
Scott’s performance is extraordinary in its precision and detail. Even before the big revelations are made there is no looking away from this actor in complete control of his material even if the character is not in control of his life. It must have been extraordinary to witness this performance live. Stephens’ writing is poetically bleak, beautifully precise and devastating in its impact. I doubt you’ll see a better example of the monologue so hurry and watch while it’s still around.
After that, Midnight Your Time had a very hard act to follow yet, in its own way, it was effectively done. It is a revival of a monologue which first saw the light of day in 2011 but has recently been committed to video since the crisis started. It is an ideal choice for today’s situation in that the central character Judy speaks directly into a computer messaging system trying to communicate with her unseen and her unresponsive daughter (pleasingly, coincidentally, like Alex’s unseen partner she is also called Helen). All we know is that the latter is working in Palestine and that there has obviously been a massive falling out between mother and daughter.
It soon becomes apparent that Judy is trying to fill a hole in her life. Her messages become increasingly scathing to the point where some have to be deleted showing the mother’s growing desperation. She has lost her job as well as her daughter and casts around for “good works” to do to fill the void. This just brings her more unhappiness as it all becomes a competition between her and her Islington associates to demonstrate how caring they are towards an Afghani refugee. Gradually it dawns on us just why Judy finds herself so isolated as Adam Brace’s clever script peels away the layers of the onion that is his central character’s life. Her need to be in control has probably driven her child away. Like Alex she also has a hole at the centre of her life.
Filmed entirely in the home of Diana Quick, which looks exactly as you would imagine Judy’s home to look, the recording starts with a shot of her laptop (freeze frame this if you want a snapshot of who Judy is!) and moves onto her contacts list which is tellingly devoid of anyone but her two children and a Dr Martinez; no more of the latter is revealed but the inclusion speaks volumes. Starting slightly drunkenly on New Year’s Eve the central character appears increasingly washed out and wrung out as the piece progresses – in one sequence she appears almost ghostly. Despite a sometimes cheery attempt to put a positive spin on things we can see from the whites of Judy’s eyes that she is putting on a front both for her daughter and herself. Quick has videoed herself without vanity based on Michael Longhurst’s original direction and, if not quite in the same league as Sea Wall (how could it be?) it still does a pretty good job.
One very good and one outstanding example, then, of a form which has perhaps struggled a little to maintain its impetus since Bennett made it his own at the end of the last century. Personal stories have become important again and I have no doubt there will be many more placed before us based on the impact of the pandemic. For monologue connoisseurs both these plays should be high on anyone’s “to watch” list ahead of the BBC’s new minted Talking Heads, due soon; among these, tantalizingly, two new pieces will appear. If they are as good as the originals (and Sea Wall/Midnight Your Time) then we will all soon be in monologue heaven.
Sea Wall is available to rent. Click here
Midnight Your Time is available on You Tube. Click here
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