Nat Randall’s The Second Woman
In the third staging of The Second Woman, produced as part of Liveworks in Sydney, the artist Nat Randall once again steps into a small box of a room, washed with red and pink light, shrouded in a thin transparent screen. Next to the room is a screen of near identical proportions, on which is projected video of the live performance, captured by two roaming camerawomen, edited in real time. The whole construct is simultaneously warm and clinically precise. As the work unfolds, a single scene is repeated across the duration of 24 hours, played out by Randall and 100 different men, one after the other, each recruited from an open callout.
The scene isn’t directly lifted from Opening Night, the 1977 John Cassavetes film about a play within a film. Instead, it is pieced together from the movie and from Randall’s own inventions. Its core components are consistent: a man, Marty, enters the room, where a woman, Virginia, is waiting. The couple talks. He pours her a drink and unpacks his food. They debate her value to him, she dumps noodles on him, she gets up to dance, they tussle, she turns off the music, she goes to her wallet, and holds out a $50 note. Finally, a choice is offered to the male participant:
I think you should leave Marty.
MARTY (Choose your final line)
I love you. / I never loved you.
Jade Muratore, who is in charge of participant coordination on the show, uses the email address “manwrangle”. She sends through the necessary instructions. It has progressed in this way since the work was first developed for the Next Wave festival in Melbourne, and will be the same when it plays as part of the Perth Festival in March. Among other notes, it says: “We request that you do not watch the performance prior to your participation in the work.”
The performance kicks off at 6 o’clock on a quiet Friday night. I sit at home, restless. Envious of those watching, I crack at midnight, and head out, walking through the dark to Carriageworks, and sneak in to the show, sitting up the back, out of sight. The repetition is almost immediately calming. The men walk onto the set, almost uniformly trepidatious. They grow confident in different ways, either through their interactions with Randall or through a hesitant acknowledgment of the cameras or the audience. About 1am, things start to feel dangerous. A succession of men play the scene too aggressively – leaning in too hard for an unwanted, stolen kiss, throwing food back at Randall when she drops noodles in their lap. I start to question if there was any vetting process for these men and what, if any, emergency procedures there are.
The show is smartly fuelled by two factors: the vulnerability of non-actors, and the male ego displayed in each accumulative iteration of the scene. Afterwards, sitting in the bleachers, the men dissect their performances, fishing for compliments. I am in no way immune to this. There is a small space in the opening of the scene for improvisation. Following the first line of scripted dialogue, Randall asks, “How are you?” and then “What are you thinking?” I keep revising lines in my head for this, that, on reflection, are quite embarrassing. I think about reciting some variation on other dialogue from Opening Night to get in my Cassavetes credibility, or breaking the fourth wall by announcing, “I am here to write about this for The Saturday Paper.” Both are stupid throws to the audience. In the end, perhaps depressed by what I had witnessed the night before, I offered only what I was truly thinking: “I just want to acquit myself well.”
Jade, acting as stagehand, is waiting for me when I walk into the hushed green room space. Two older men – gentle and softly spoken – sit nervously waiting to be called on. We run through some final instructions. Randall has been performing for 20 hours straight when I am called on. I must be somewhere around the 80th man to appear. I walk through the cavernous theatre space and open the door to the small box set. It feels like doing a walk-on on Seinfeld. As instructed, I walk up behind Randall and whisper my real name into her ear, inaudible to the audience. This acknowledgment of true identity makes one feel more fallible in that space. The room seems smaller than when watching it, the screen no longer in sight. Randall turns around, and looks remarkably composed for someone who has been caught in a whirlpool of repetition for hours on end. Her face is more open than I expected, and somewhere in there is the key to finding a semblance of direction. It purposefully guides you into position.
I perform the lines dutifully, but probably dully. Randall carefully drops a load of noodles into my lap, before getting up to turn on the stereo, The distinct disco opening of “Taste of Love” by Aura plays, a song that must be burnt into the minds of so many in the audience by now. In the script there are instructions to wrap my arms around Randall, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. Instead, I rest my hands on her back, until she does the same for me, and the scene finishes without us ever dancing. The audience laughs loudly because this isn’t how the scene is supposed to play out. She is supposed to drop to the ground in my arms. I am proud to have provided a variation for the audience, but I wonder if this is a violation. Indeed, perhaps, even writing this piece – giving voice to one male out of the hundred to elaborate on the experience – is to run against the grain of the work and its intentions.
The critic Briony Kidd, writing of the Dark Mofo performance of the work, noted that “Randall owns this space. She’s calling the shots, no matter how much her character’s behaviour might imply otherwise, and the audience’s appraisal of each performance is subtly dictated by hers.” Indeed, Randall finds muted and clever ways to dismiss the men – microscopic eye rolls, the tiniest smiles – that land perfectly with the audience. The desperado who followed me pats Randall’s arse on his way out, and the audience groans audibly. These disapproving groans will become a key part of the audience’s contribution to the performance. They serve to call out the transgressions of the men who have set themselves up to fail. The scene isn’t a trap, but some men just can’t help but enact their privilege. Randall, in spite of an increasing physical exhaustion, is alert to these differences, playing with them to power her own performance.
The American novelist Jonathan Lethem, in a long love letter to Cassavetes, noted that the director “invented his unique language of behaviour in part by matching professional male actors with unprofessional females”. Lethem notes that a male actor was given pages of dialogue weeks before a film went into production, while a female performer was given them on the morning of the shoot. Randall does far more than just offer the audience a dramatic reversal of this power dynamic. During the 24 hours of her performance, she creates her own “language of behaviour” to counter the many myths of manhood, and subtly teaches others how to speak it.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 27, 2018 as "Her story repeating". Subscribe here.