Despite emphatically insisting I would book no theatre in July, when I saw that Paines Plough were bringing Simon Stephen’s monologue Sea Wall to the National Theatre Shed for a week, with Andrew Scott (now better known as Moriarty in Sherlock) reprising his role, I was faced with what was surely an unmissable show*. I have friends who rave about Sea Wall, Stephens himself calls it his best work and I loved the filmed version that they made of it. Loved it so much that I converted it into a sound file that I listened to a lot when knocking together my first skeletal draft of True Brits. Actually, I’ve actually only seen the filmed version once since I bought it but that sound file gets a lot of airing.
Monologues by their nature are more vulnerable/open (depending on how precious you are) to different ways of being played and in the version I saw at The Shed, what was most astonishing was how moments I had previously believed to be Weighty were breezed past and importance was shifted to different areas. More over, the dynamic was altered by their being an audience, loose and laughing out loud to some sections, overwhelmingly still at other times. The performer responded to these reactions as you might expect him to. It would’ve been great to see Sea Wall on another night to figure out if Scott mixes it up every time or if this was a markedly different but fixed performance. Whilst I still liked the play this time around, and it’s always a pleasure watching an actor that does so much with their expressions, you know what I’ve decided?
I preferred the audio recorded version.
The stage version is obviously where it originated, and with regards to my experience it may have suffered from my knowing what was coming – certainly, everyone around me was blown away – but I feel there’s more to it than that. There is something both very intimate and distancing about listening to just the sound. Someone whispering a story but you can’t see their face. For me, that’s the power of this piece, amplified by this dichotomy. The gentle savagery that sits at the heart of this play could be anyone you know…they just wouldn’t admit it to a room full of people. As I look to write more material for radio, that’s something I hope to play with.
*depressing money-grabbing stunt where £12 is charged for a thirty minute performance.