What’s makes Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall so extraordinary is not its contemplation of a deity or its visceral creation of images using only words, nor even Andrew Scott’s truly engaging performance as he conversationally winds his way through anecdote and allegory (though all these are crucial to its success). No, what makes it such a knock-out is the gut-punching way in which the narrative slowly and informally builds up to one particular moment before knocking you backwards. To see such an intimate and simple show on a National Theatre stage (this production, in association with Paines Plough, is presented in the temporary Shed space) is an achievement in itself; the fact the piece itself is also a complete triumph should be shouted from the theatre’s red-panelled rooftop.
The monologue, which premièred in 2008 at the Bush Theatre and has been revived countless times the world over, discusses the relationship between the speaker (Alex) and his father-in-law on a trip to France with his wife and daughter. A central theme is Alex’s inability to comprehend why anyone would believe in God, and the argument between him and his wife’s father around this point forms a large part of the play’s intellectual clout. More important than this, however, is the way in which the monologue builds a relationship with its audience, laughing at itself so that we completely invest in Alex, making the tragedy feel all the more heartbreaking.
Scott’s performance is a masterclass in simple but emotionally complex delivery. Directed by George Perrin, he begins on stage as the audience walks in, smiling and nodding at us. The stage holds the remnants of The Hush which was on earlier in the evening, giving a sense of openness and scratch-i-ness, placing the theatrical act at the centre of the piece. The doors close, but the house lights don’t go down, and he begins chatting conversationally, seemingly as Andrew Scott. The barrier here between character and performer is difficult to discern; instead, it slowly builds just as the text does, so that the point when one becomes the other is impossible to pinpoint.
This makes the performance all the more startling, as lines are delivered with complete sincerity and Scott reacts to the giggles and exclamations from audience members. At one point, he points out that he has a “hole going right through” him. He doesn’t, of course. But we can see it anyway.
Herein lies the genius of Stephens’ text, which evokes images so vividly that even with a bare stage in front of us we have no trouble creating them in our mind’s eye. The titular image – that of a ‘sea wall’, where the ocean floor drops suddenly a good way out from the beach – is described with such clarity and emotion that we find ourselves just as floored as Alex by the idea of it. These sorts of moments are sprinkled throughout, and then used to devastating effect towards the end of the piece’s 35-minute running time.
This is a production that even devotees of last year’s filmed version of the play need to see. After experiencing the piece as a live event in a room full of people, it becomes difficult to understand how you experienced it alone on a screen; one of the major reasons this works so successfully is its relationship with its audience, keenly aware that they are in the room and that this is an act of sharing for the man in front of us. Like the film, the moments of brutality come through clearly, but its the moments of collective laughter which come before which give Sea Wall its shattering humanity.