Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge didn’t anticipate that their dual monologue play Sea Wall/A Life would resonate as profoundly as it has with audiences. “Every night, I hear a story at the stage door,” says Gyllenhaal. That impact led the two, who premiered the play Off-Broadway at the Public Theater, to transfer for a limited nine-week engagement to Broadway’s Hudson Theatre.
On opening night, August 8, the two stars, as well as director Carrie Cracknell (in her Broadway debut) and playwright Simon Stephens, spoke to Playbill on the red carpet and revealed 15 revelations about Sea Wall/A Life and where it could play next.
Nick Payne catered the text of A Life to Jake Gyllenhaal and an American audience.
“He really re-formed it for Jake and wrote to Jake’s voice and changed a lot of the cultural references—the powdered Entenmann’s donuts—all these tiny details that make it feel like Jake’s voice,” says Cracknell.
The set intentionally looks like a nondescript theatre.
“I imagine it as an abandoned theatre space or backstage of a theatre space so there’s this simplicity, like this idea that two people have just turned up and they turn the lights on and then they talk directly to the audience,” says Cracknell, “but, of course, held within it is lots of resonance: the wall and the brick and the brutality of that, the piano, and the way the lights speak to his photography. So there are lots of elements within the design that hold and contain the stories.”
Cracknell changed the musical ending for Broadway.
“The singing was about looking for something a little more expansive and more hopeful in those final beats,” says Cracknell.
The final moments now include a crucial design element—a change for Broadway.
“The projections were really about trying to create this idea of these two tiny isolated stories in a city within a massive community of people who all might be living alongside each other and not know what’s happening—that you can be living next door to someone going through a total crisis and not being able to share that,” Cracknell says. “That felt like an interesting way of linking the two pieces together.”
The play could see its London bow.
Cracknell acknowledges that Sea Wall feels very British, while A Life feels very American. When asked if the play—which made its premiere at the Public Off-Broadway—could play across the pond, she smiled. “Maybe…yes.”
Sea Wall was inspired by playwright Simon Stephens’ real life.
“It was a play that I had to write incredibly quickly for a commissioning theatre back in 2007. They gave me two weeks,” he says. “I was on holiday with my wife and my kids and my father-in-law and we were on holiday in France. When you’ve not got much time you just have to go quickly. You can’t think. I was swimming in the sea and I was looking back at the shore and I could see my father-in-law legibly not looking after my children and I thought, ‘My God he’s not paying any attention to them at all! Anything could happen.’ And then I thought, ‘Well that’s quite interesting.’ This is the thing that writers do, we explore and excavate the darker corners of experience in order to make sense of them.”
Two cut paragraphs appear in this version of Sea Wall.
“[Tom] accidentally got hold of a draft of the play that had two paragraphs that had been cut from the London production” before Stephens’ play had been paired with A Life. “He was insistent that those two paragraphs were two of his favorite paragraphs: the paragraph when he goes into some detail about going under the water and feeding the fish and does the beautiful dance and then the paragraph about the Mistral, the weatherfront on the coast of France. In a way, the text he delivers in this show is a real premiere. He found the beautiful accidents.”
Tom Sturridge’s performance might feel like he’s losing his place, but it’s all scripted.
“If you look at the text, a lot of the hesitations, repetitions, the circularities around word choice are in the text,” says Stephens. “The one thing he tarts up is searching for the word for ‘scrubs.’ He really tarts that up.”
For Sturridge, Broadway feels more intimate.
“There’s 1,000 people compared to 260 or whatever it was. Something about it, the way the theatre is designed, you’re like cocooned. The acoustics in that room, you really can just talk to people. It’s crazy.”
Sturridge needs to meet the audience before he begins his piece.
“I just want to try and make a connection with people,” he says. “When you catch someone’s eye and smile with each other, I have immediately created an intimacy for the rest of the piece.”
Sea Wall is unlike any other play Sturridge has performed.
“It’s just the quality of the silence. I have never done a play [and felt this],” he says. “And when it’s 1,000 people, the silence is even louder. There are moments when it feels like people are worried about breathing.”
Nick Payne didn’t let Gyllenhaal do A Life for five years.
The playwright used to perform this monologue himself in its earliest days. Gyllenhaal loved it, but Payne wanted to work on it more before handing it over. Seven years passed since Gyllenhaal first found out about A Life to its Broadway bow.
Gyllenhaal rehearsed his lines everywhere in order to get them out of the way so he could be more present.
“What was so lovely was to spend some time away and to do the monologue sometimes just for friends,” he says. “I did it riding in a car when I was jetlagged in like country after country and try it in different situations and things would pop out in different ways. I just got excited to be more present and to try as best as I can to pull ‘performance’ out of it even though it is performance. And there’s just something about the way the words were written that allows me to do that.”
Gyllenhaal thinks of different people in his life each time he performs.
“I know it well enough now that if I can make a choice in a millisecond, I can see different things. I know, for instance, when she’s in labor that she’s in the water. But tonight I thought of my sister a lot. Tonight she was here. One of my closest friends was here and they just had their first kid and they were in my mind too. I play with what is there.”
He is so concerned with being present that his costume can change night to night.
“I don’t always wear the same thing,” he reveals.