At a time when covid-19 cases are on a rise, it is perhaps a wise decision by the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) and Book My Show to stream their latest co-production Sea Wall online. The critically-acclaimed play has been written by Simon Stephens, recipient of the prestigious Tony and Olivier awards, and directed by Bruce Guthrie, the head of theatre and films at the NCPA. The piece has been performed by Jim Sarbh. “Theatres are working incredibly hard to welcome audiences back into safe environments and that is to be commended. Standard Operating Procedures are being implemented across the country to make getting out as safe as possible. However, many people are still nervous and so we offer this as an alternative,” explains Guthrie.
The play has had sold-out runs in the West End and on Broadway. Guthrie, whose directing credits include Constellations (NCPA) and RENT (St James Theatre and UK Tour), among others, had directed Sarbh in Sea Wall at the ADD ART festival in December 2019. The play opened to packed houses and the plan had always been to revisit it. “When the lockdown happened, we thought the play would be ideal given it requires one actor and no large sets or props. Knowing Jim's extensive film and television work, he was the perfect fit for us to launch this online initiative,” he explains.
The introduction to the play sets the context. An empty theatre with a ghost light standing as a sentry over the space awaits the audience’s return. “It's a beautiful tradition that we wanted to mark with this play. Sea Wall was shot continuously—it is not cut together from multiple takes. We rehearsed for two weeks and then had a day of camera rehearsals before shooting the play. We have four cameras working together to capture Jim's performance, and wanted it to feel as consistent and grounded as possible,” he adds.
Described as a modern tragedy, Sea Wall is about Alex, a photographer who loves his family and his job but his contentment is short-lived. “It happens to be a play that deals with grief and stoicism in a way I think will connect with so many people right now. The theatre can be a place for escapism, but also a place for contemplation. I find the piece to be life-affirming,” the director points out.
The monologue performed by the actor on stage is quite descriptive. Chunks of the text were storyboarded with images that Sarbh could link to them. “This created a series of visual references in his head. Then it was about how you pitch the journey of Alex. He is dealing with an immense change in his life and the guilt of having done something that he believes is the cruelest thing ever. That's a fine line for an actor to walk. Jim does that brilliantly,” believes Guthrie.
He further adds that Sarbh’s experience in film and television has really helped because he instinctively knows how to pitch to the camera. He uses the cameras like audience members.
While the digital experience will always be compared with the live experience, Guthrie thinks it will evolve into something of an entity on its own. And he has a simple enough formula for it. “The time when we know that has been achieved will be when we are able to ask ourselves the question - if you had a choice between the digital experience or seeing it live, would you be happy to have the digital experience? If the answer can be yes to this, then we will know we have cracked the digital experience,” he says.
Guthrie cites hugely successful examples of digital theatres such as National Theatre Live and the Met. “They provide an opportunity for audiences who would not usually have access to live performance due to tickets being sold out, theatres being too far away or tickets being too expensive. Digital could be a great leveller in terms of access to the arts at the highest level,” he believes.
You can stream Sea Wall on BookMyShow between 27-28 February and 6-7 March.