Rosie Wyatt

BLINK_3_Rosie Wyatt as Sophie_Photo Sheila Burnet (2)

Originally written for The Stage.

Rosie Wyatt loves to look audience members right in the eye. In Bunny, a solo show about a teenage girl increasingly out of her depth, she offered an intense portrait of adolescent swagger and anxiety, breathlessly delivering Jack Thorne’s narrative directly to the audience. In the absence of connection and intimacy available to her character in Blink, she instead gazed outwards, finding points of contact with spectators; even delivering a script-in-hand reading, her stare can penetrate right through a play.

“It’s just about being really honest and genuinely telling a story,” Wyatt explains when we speak, quickly adding, “not acting talking to the audience, but actually talking to the audience. That sounds like something really simple but it is very different.” With care, she discusses the unique demands of direct audience address, in which “the audience are your other character”.

“If you act a traditional scene with dialogue, you’re always looking at how you’re affecting that other person and what you want to do to that other person in the scene. When you’re talking right out to the audience it’s the same thing: it’s what do I want to do to the audience, what am I trying to tell the audience?”

This way of relating to an audience was initially developed while performing in Bunny, Wyatt’s first job out of drama school. Thorne’s blistering monlogue went to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010 – where it won a Fringe First – travelled down to London for a run at Soho Theatre, and eventually ended up in New York as part of the Brits Off Broadway season. “It couldn’t have been a better start for me really,” says Wyatt, describing herself as “incredibly lucky”. “You can’t ask for more from a first job: for it to be able to give you your debut, your London debut and then your New York debut.”

But it must have been intimidating to take on a one-woman show straight out of drama school? “Yes, petrifying,” Wyatt says with a laugh. “It was an amazing experience because I got this showcase that was just me, but it was also incredibly exposing and scary.”

This showcase certainly opened doors; “it got me in front of people and got me to meet a lot of people,” Wyatt says. The play’s success quickly led to her second job in the Paines Plough tour of Love, Love, Love, and she says that even her casting in this year’s national and international tour of One Man, Two Guvnors can be traced back to that first job. Other gigs to follow the acclaim of Bunny have included roles in Mogadishu, Blink and most recently Virgin – all new plays.

Despite this impressive track record with new writing, Wyatt reveals that her passion for acting has much more traditional roots. “I sort of fell in love with the theatre because of Shakespeare,” she tells me, recalling the regular trips she used to make to RSC productions while she was a sixth form student in Stratford-Upon-Avon. “I hadn’t really known about the world of new writing until I stepped into it doing Bunny,” Wyatt admits. Now, however, she describes working on new plays and originating roles as “the biggest joy” of what she does, adding, “I feel very happily placed in the world of new writing”.

The other notable feature of Wyatt’s career to date is the amount of touring work she has taken on. As well as the tour of One Man, Two Guvnors, which visited destinations such as Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong, Wyatt has taken to the road with Bunny, Love, Love, Love and Mogadishu. “I don’t think it gets any easier,” she says of the touring lifestyle, “but I think what you do is learn your way of doing it that keeps you sane.”

What she relishes, however, is the opportunity to constantly perform in front of new audiences. “Every play I’ve done, you find that you get different responses in each city,” Wyatt says. “That’s so interesting and that’s something that I feel like I’ve been really lucky to get to do.” While these regional and cultural differences can sometimes be challenging – particularly when elements of the humour in One Man, Two Guvnors got lost in translation – Wyatt explains that “you just learn to always bring to it the same energy and always give that best version of the performance that you would want to give”.

Wyatt will soon have the opportunity to travel again as she returns to Blink, which is going out to India before opening for a second time at the Soho Theatre in December. Phil Porter’s off-kilter romance, which Wyatt first performed in at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, tells the story of an unusual relationship between two shy outsiders – not the most obvious export. Wyatt confesses that she’s got “no idea how they’re going to engage with our little love story”, but she is excited to return to the play.

“I think actually the experience of re-rehearsing something having had some distance and some time away from it is really quite valuable,” she reflects. “Returning to a script you already know but with fresh eyes is really useful and makes for an interesting production. In a script as good as the one Phil has written, there’s always more to be found and more to get to know about these two characters.”

Photo: Sheila Burnet

Blink, Soho Theatre

The human eyeball is a lot like a single lens reflex camera. Both have a lens, a focus, a destination where the picture is formed. In the same way, love – at least for Phil Porter’s pair of charmingly strange characters – has a lot in common with voyeurism. The initial jolt of something like recognition, long periods of watching and yearning, a gradual descent into familiar comfort.

Watching is central to Porter’s off-kilter romance, visiting the Soho Theatre fresh from Edinburgh. Sophie feels as though she is slowly disappearing and has a desperate need to be observed. Ever since volunteering as the night watchman for the reclusive religious commune in which he was raised, Jonah likes to watch. It is a match made in Peeping Tom heaven. While playing with the conventions of the rom-com, however, this is distinctly setting itself apart from traditional romantic narratives – less hearts and flowers, more foibles and dysfunction. It is a love story, Jonah is keen to emphasise, but perhaps not the kind we’re used to seeing.

As already established, seeing and being seen are overt themes. A number of Sophie and Jonah’s shared activities involve watching, including a telling level of emotional involvement with a television plot, while it is not insignificant that the most erotically charged moment between them is sparked by an act of joint voyeurism. This atmosphere of covert observation is reflected in Joe Murphy’s direction, which places actors Rosie Wyatt and Harry McEntire at opposite sides of the performance space, stealing looks at one another while directing their separate segments of the same story to the audience. They take turns to watch, switching between spectator and subject, but rarely do their eyes meet in a moment of direct intimacy.

What all this watching hints at, other than a natural human instinct towards nosiness, is rather more interesting. Sophie and Jonah’s relationship, for want of a better description, begins through the mediator of a camera in Sophie’s flat, placing a screen between the pair from the beginning. This immediately leaps out as a symptom of the digital age, an indictment of the lack of real connection engendered by our ultra-connected society, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Although these two characters certainly suffer from an allergy to intimacy, Jonah has been brought up starved of technology, suggesting that our difficulties with relationships and our fondness for the false intimacy of pining from a distance run deeper than the digital sceptics might have us believe.

There is also a link to be drawn between the feeling of being watched and the subtle religious references made by the piece. While Jonah’s fiercely pious upbringing is primarily a source of comedy, the concept of a divine being is not just there for laughs. There is something in Sophie’s poignant desire to be seen that speaks of an inherent impulse to believe in a greater power watching over us, while the knowing adoption of the sort of coincidences typical to the rom-com genre throws around ideas of fate and destiny, once again implied to have more to do with psychological need than any universal master plan.

Far from being the exclusive preserve of a deity who directs our lives, Blink seems to be saying that watching is an intensely human activity. It is also an activity that we as an audience are of course deeply complicit in. This is powerfully felt in a brief moment when Wyatt and McEntire, enacting the joint activity of watching television, sit and stare out at us. What we as an audience are doing, crowded into a dark room with a group of strangers to gawp at a couple of people pretending to be other people for an hour or two, is essentially quite odd, a largely unacknowledged observation that the piece could do more with. In a play so concerned with spectatorship, it neglects to truly dissect the act of spectating that makes the piece possible in the first place.

For all the interest sparked by Porter’s intelligent, multi-layered text, the production is largely made what it is by the appeal of Wyatt and McEntire, in whose hands these weird, lonely characters become almost unbearably endearing. They are both kooky while delicately side-stepping cliche, staying just the right side of twee and occasionally snagging our emotions on moments of gutting, unshowy sadness. If it were possible to capture the overall aesthetic of the performances, they linger somewhere between cute and detached; a sort of dislocated realism that might easily be taken for straightforward naturalistic acting but has just the lightest touch of strangeness.

This strangeness bleeds into Hannah Clark’s set, which begs us to look at it. The Ikea-meets-woodland-meets-kitsch design is made up of a back wall of panels showing a blown-up photograph of a forest scene, a carpet of imitation grass, and a selection of office furniture that is gradually moved around the space. Much can potentially be taken from these intriguing choices, but the most striking comment made by the set is one that is married to this idea of intimacy at a distance. Just as Jonah falls in love with Sophie while watching her on a screen, the “outdoors” that Clark’s design presents us with is pointedly fake and photographic – a distant representation that appears on something very much like a screen.

As much as it eschews the trajectory of the rom-com (how many love stories begin with anecdotes about dissecting eyes or removing teeth?), there are moments when Blink trips up slightly on the tropes it is teasing us with. But just as Porter seems to have relented to the irresistible appeal of his oddball characters and given his audience what they want, this anti-climactic possibility is quietly ripped away. This enchantingly quirky piece is too clever to conform to our expectations, as much as it may flirt with them, but in its subversion it equally takes us by surprise. No jaw-dropping denouement, the final narrative twist is unobtrusive, gentle, with a bleak note of inevitability. It is even sadder for this. A fondant with a heart of bitter chocolate, the beauty of Porter’s creation is that the whimsy is always tempered with something altogether darker.

Blink runs at Soho Theatre until 22nd September at Soho Theatre.

Photo: Sheila Burnett