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

Theatre Uncut in Edinburgh

Originally written for Exeunt.

Against a backdrop of crisis, cuts, turmoil and disillusionment, theatre seems to be reclaiming its place as an art form at the heart of popular protest. Only a few days after the widely attacked sentencing of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, a verdict whose announcement was marked by a day of protest across the world – including an event at the Royal Court Theatre – an embryonic glimpse of this year’s new international incarnation of Theatre Uncut is seen at the Traverse Theatre. It is the sort of protest that feels rough, messy, alive.

The series of short play readings, a taste of what to expect from the full autumn event, takes place not in the auditorium but in the theatre’s bar. We are told that this is to demonstrate that these plays can be performed anywhere; the hope is that this November they will be given life by hundreds of people in village halls and cafes, pubs and community centres. Beyond this straightforward aim, the bar feels like an open, sociable space, a space where audience and performers are not divided by an invisible barrier but where we are able to feel like simply one group of people gathered together with a common interest.

Extending this united messiness, none of the work that is presented is in anything near a finished state. Everyone’s time is given free to Theatre Uncut, meaning that actors assembled from across the festival have had only one hour in which to rehearse and still clutch scripts in their hands. There is something appealingly untidy about it, lending the event a fitting air of urgency. A more slick and polished product would take something from the importance of its message; here the potency lies entirely with the writing.

The pieces that are showcased at the morning event all take differing approaches to the political stimuli, a recognition of the multiplicity of voices and perspectives to which Theatre Uncut is responding. Anders Lustgarten’s The Break Out is succinctly metaphorical. A scene between two women given the chance to escape a benign prison and offered a choice between being “comfortably miserable or scarily free”, it confronts our apathy-inducing state of comfort and the illusion of freedom that can be so easily cast.

Meanwhile Blondie, written by Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme graduate Hayley Squires and absolutely nothing to do with Debbie Harry, takes the dystopian route. Playing with the cult of personality that has dominated politics in recent years, reaching its apex with Blair’s brand of “Cool Britannia”, Squires paints a portrait of a leader elected on pure, blonde-haired appeal. The brutal lesson that this leader then teaches the country – to “get a grip” – is lacking in subtlety, but lands a few painful punches on our greedy, fiercely consumerist lack of perspective. Dire as the situation here may seem, Squires reminds us, it is much worse elsewhere.

The most striking piece of the morning, however, is Clara Brennan’s Spine. Heartbreakingly performed by Rosie Wyatt, it tells the tender story of an unlikely friendship between a frail old woman and a teenage girl, while also writing something of a love letter to our dying libraries. It is a delicately multi-layered monologue, touching upon the deep and damaging cuts, the concept of political power and the idea that there is “nothing more terrifying than a teenager with something to say”, but its primary cry is one for compassion. Politics has forgotten people, something that this deeply moving piece does not allow us to do for a moment.

The morning is closed by two pieces even more ad hoc than the rest. In recognition of the Pussy Riot trial that has provoked so much protest around the world, and as a sort of epilogue to the event at the Royal Court at which the defendants’ testimonies were read, three actresses pull on balaclavas while we listen to the sentencing of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich. This is then followed by a rapid response piece by David Greig, written over a matter of days and inspired by recent news. This move towards immediacy is one which helps to solidify the ideas that have been floating shapelessly around the room, firmly reminding us that this is an event connected to and speaking out against very real problems.

But there is also an awareness that this is not enough. Sitting in a room listening to and talking about political issues is not quite action in itself. As Marco Canale’s candid monologueThe Birth of My Violence recognises, putting pen to paper instead of placard can be interpreted as an act of cowardice, an evasion of genuine action in favour of weak intellectualising, and perhaps it is.

What Theatre Uncut lacks in this current presentation is what makes it what it is: the element of mass protest. Performed in a closed space to a few dozen gathered people, these pieces can feel like cursory gestures. But when taken ownership of by people all over the country in a unified raising of voices, these short plays have the power to be much, much more.