Simon Stephens Invokes Delicacy in Harsh Times
by Jennifer Ann Charron
It’s hard these days not to view everything through the lens of 2020—global warming, worldwide pandemic, systemic racial injustice, millions sick or dead, 100-degree temperatures in Siberia. Everything seems so big, so overwhelming, so “HUGE.” I’ve grown exhausted using words like dystopian, monumental, epic, annihilating…I long for sensitivity.
While it doesn’t seem like we can escape the immensity of the moment, I have discovered a 30-minute reprieve—a delicate glimpse of humanity at its best and worst. “Sea Wall” by Simon Stephens is a masterful intimate monologue, now on video, performed by his friend, superb actor Andrew Scott.
Originally performed on stage in 2008 in the UK, Stephens and Scott collaborate to make this beautiful short film in 2011, shot on a single camera in a bright loft studio, with Scott in jeans and dark polo shirt.
“Sea Wall” returns us to a delicate vulnerability that I’ve been missing in these “larger than life” times. Scott plays Alex, an unassuming young Irishman, here to tell us his story. He speaks simply and personally through the camera to us. With no stage design to distract our attention or costumes to suggest narrative, we find ourselves alone with Alex in a photographer’s studio. We listen with awe to his intimate story of wonder and devastation.
Alex lovingly describes his beautiful life with his wife Helen and their enchanting young daughter Lucy. Lucy is beyond the love of his life. Alex begins, “She had us … both of us, absolutely round her finger.”
Playwright Stephens’ script is breathtaking. Using simple, conversational style, he makes stunning, crystal clear analogies. Alex describes “a hole in his stomach,” as Scott slowly and methodically draws a circle around his midsection. His modest conversation imparts a sense of innocence, yet elegance. We are instantly plucked from the abstract horrors of 2020 by Alex’s ease and candor.
It’s hard to decipher whether Stephens’ words or Andrew Scott’s delivery that steals the show. Scott is mesmerizing and his boyish charm is hypnotic. He emotes with every part of his body and draws us in with every glance. His acting is so smooth and disarming, it’s like watching a hummingbird.
I am not alone in my praise for Andrew Scott. Since this filming, Scott has sprinted to stardom in such iconic roles as Moriarty in Sherlock, and “the hot priest” in Season Two of Fleabag, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
Every year, the family visits Andrew, Helen’s father, for a holiday in the south of France. Alex describes former army officer Andrew as strong and sensitive. Alex is captivated by Andrew’s complexities and thoughtful nature. Together they discuss life’s mysteries with tender disagreements, yet Alex is completely beguiled by his father-in-law.
One summer, Andrew takes the family to the beach and shows Alex the sea wall. With sheer innocence, Alex marvels how the earth below your feet can just drop away into oblivion. We pause at the exactitude of the statement, changing the moment from marvelous revelation to a harbinger of tragedy.
As Alex’s story unfolds, we hold our breath, knowing that their perfect life cannot last, that mortality must intervene. When it does, we are left with wonder, seen through the lens of a devastating accident that transforms their lives.
Arm yourself with Kleenex and take a half hour to watch this beautiful solo play on Vimeo. “Sea Wall” may not change our crazy world, but it will restore a simple sense of familiar humanity lost in today’s enormity.
“Sea Wall” by Simon Stephens, directed by Simon Stephens & Andrew Scott—Streaming at: AndrewScott
Cast: Andrew Scott