“Lights up. The actor is alone” – type aspiring playwrights all over the world, unconsciously in unison. I anticipate reading this line (or something similar) over and over again, as a wave of new writing comes crashing into the theatrical sphere in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. For what form of theatre better encompasses the solitude and separation defining this moment in history than a one-hander play with its single performer and bare stage?
The one-hander had already become widely cherished by both theatre-makers and audiences, far before “quarantine” was even a whisper on the lips of a government official. A play with only one performer is an easy way to showcase new work; it’s often simple to produce and stage, allowing room for the performance and writing to shine through. Also – crucially – it’s cheap. But, separately from practical elements, the one-hander has become such an attractive form because it seems to speak to a generation plagued with feelings of isolation. Of course, it’s become a bit of a cliché to blame everything on social media, but the truth is unavoidable: in our increased virtual connectivity, we have lost legitimate connection. Ours is a generation obsessed with moving forward, charging towards our ambition with independence and unstoppable acceleration. The one-hander responds to this by momentarily forcing us to pause and appreciate these small, introspective moments on the stage. There is no razzle-dazzle or hyper-theatricality or magic tricks. It is simply a character talking to us, telling us their dreams and fears, having a bit of cry maybe, and then leaving us to reflect on the overwhelming intimacy of the interaction.
This sense of intimacy is the defining quality of the one-hander – without it, we’d be watching at best a stand-up comedy set, or at worst, a kind of meandering ramble in the style of Ronnie Corbett’s Armchair Monologues. Of course, such intimacy is created in the very form of a one-hander, in that a single actor, stripped of the protective layer that the fourth wall offers, addresses an audience head-on. The actor must be fearless: they not only bare the character to the world, but they must also bare themselves. Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall, written especially for Andrew Scott to perform, is so enchanting precisely because it catches Andrew Scott’s own charisma perfectly. Obviously, he plays a character, a grieving father, but it is Andrew-Scott-as-a-grieving-father which gives the play its magic. The actor tells a joke and laughs, and the audience laughs as well; the actor spins into hysteria and cries, and the audience cries alongside them. Performing a one-hander requires such an infinitely fine attention to your own emotional capacity in order to successfully master the audience’s empathy. Being alone on the stage leaves an actor entirely vulnerable. But such vulnerability is so captivating that it renders them untouchably powerful.
The one-hander makes us its confidant: we, the observers, are made witness to the innermost secret chambers of a character’s heart. For just a couple of hours, we are granted the gift of feeling like we are reading Fleabag’s diary or listening in to sister’s unheard cries in random. The theatre’s atmosphere is one of trust, as a character envelopes us in their voice and confidence. However, the audience is never allowed to feel truly comfortable – the character’s privacy is at stake. The one-hander confronts us with an uncomfortable openness, assaulting us with unconcealed feelings of guilt, regret, and grief. Trapped in their seat, the viewer is subjected to painful silences between broken lines – silences which twist the pit of the stomach in empathetic circles – so that they have some pause to reflect. Silence is to the one-hander play what negative space is to art: a necessary nothingness which seeks to emphasise what is there. On the bare stage, there is nowhere to hide, and so the grimy underside of human nature lies exposed under the hot light of a Fresnel lantern.
The one-hander play is a conversation with a close friend, and yet at the same time it offers an uncomfortable degree of nakedness. I suppose, therefore, the effect can only be compared with having a conversation with a close friend whilst they’re naked – you never quite know where to look, or what to do with your hands, or whether you should even be there. These plays offer a unique closeness that we are often too polite or embarrassed to seek in our day to day lives. Such unashamed openness of the heart creates intimacy. It’s a necessary remedy to 21st century isolation.