The Third Day: Autumn

The Third Day: Autumn is a 12-hour live performance from the immersive theatre company Punchdrunk and the creator of Utopia, Dennis Kelly. It was shown on HBO and Sky Atlantic in real time in October. 

Set on the Essex coast on Osea island, the performance ‘Autumn’ was shown in the middle of The Third Day, a 6-episode series that follows Sam (played by Jude Law) who travels to the island after saving a girl from attempted suicide. All too quickly the water rises over the causeway and he is cut off from the mainland. With no signal and the phone line dead, he is trapped on the island. Has he been here before? Dreams and reality start to blur; he becomes lost in a haze of hallucinations and broken narratives. The final section ‘Winter’ was shown after the live performance; this follows the character Helen (played by Naomi Harris) who heads to the island in order to find answers. 

‘Autumn’ began at 9.30 am with the opening statement ‘Every year Osea holds a festival Esus and the Sea.’ It marks the moment when children enter adulthood on the island. But on special years, when a new leader the ‘father’ is appointed, they also have to undergo a trial in order to be accepted by the islanders. ‘This year is such a year.’

We spoke to one of the main cast member’s Miranda Mac Letten, to hear about her experience performing for 12 hours straight in real- time.

“It is possible even in these mad times to pull off an immensely ambitious project.”

Can you talk about the collaboration between Punchdrunk, Sky and HBO?

Originally the idea was to blur these two worlds, theatre and tv by having a live performance where audiences could come to the island and participate in this immersive experience. Of course, when the pandemic hit, Felix Barrett the Artistic Director of Punchdrunk wanted to save this project. Instead of 2000 people coming to the island, you have this one viewpoint; the camera. He decided to look at slow, durational cinema which draws on many parallels to how our company performs live shows, whereby as an audience member you are still your own director. Each person will have a different experience because you can choose what you want to notice, whether this is a detail in the set, a certain frame of the camera or perhaps a subtle change in a performer’s facial expression.

What was the 12- hour live piece about?

It is a reenactment of the crucifixion of Christ with inspiration taken from Celtic traditions. The 12-hour festival is about Sam (Jude Law), becoming the Father of Osea Island. Felix is fascinated with the idea of ritual and the rite of passage. When he was at college, he went to a festival in Cornwall that celebrated the coming of age for young men in the community. It was a surreal experience and super dangerous; they would run down the street carrying barrels that were on fire above their heads. He recounts a girl on someone’s shoulders with her hair going up in flames.

In a Punchdrunk show you often have a ‘Resident role’ and a ‘Traveller role.’  The traveller role means that your character is part of the main story arc, they often move around the set the whole time. A resident role normally stays within their specific setting. I played the ‘drug store girl’ so most of her scenes were in the shop and with many of her actions durational, for example making an actual cup of coffee in real-time. There is something powerful in the suspense you build instead of this sped up reality that we all are getting used to.

Can you explain the rehearsal process?

It was an intense two weeks living on Osea Island, being thrown around by such changeable weather and working every day from 9.30 am to 8.30 pm. This experience meant that we all became unbelievably close by the time we reached the live performance. We felt like islanders by the end. We all had windburns and were covered in mosquito bites. The day before the performance I had gone through every piece of clothing because we were soaked through every day.

How did the company create a live performance during a pandemic?

It was incredible how the company pulled it off with all the Covid restrictions given that there were 82 actors involved in the performance. However, we did have a scare in the second week when a new group of cast members arrived on the island.  

We all got tested at the beginning of the rehearsal process and then repeatedly each day. When we arrived, each cast member bubbled with their specific cohorts and we had to follow a traffic light system for the full two weeks. At the beginning we were all on red which meant you couldn’t pass props and masks, you had to keep to social distancing rules and follow different call times for food. Then you go into amber which meant that you can rehearse, you could do scenes in close proximity if you were wearing a mask and you were strictly following the anti-bac rules. You could only enter the green zone once you had at least three tests.

When we entered the second week, we all went back to red when everyone else arrived. This was when we had three positives. They were put straight into isolation straight away and all those who had been in contact with them were also placed into quarantine. It was absolutely heartbreaking; we were terrified. It meant so much to all of us to pull this off. The company dealt with the situation so well, they had been planning and preparing for this for months. They got tested again straight away and luckily, they all came back as false negatives.

Were all the scenes improvised?

The actions and the dialogue were not set however it ended up becoming a very clear structured improvisation. We did have music queues, though quite quickly we realised that the choices we made were entirely dictated by the pathway of the camera. When the camera left us, we still maintained character, fully submersing ourselves within each scene. It never felt like we were performing, we were living it.

How did the camera team follow the action for so long?

The choreography of the camera team was incredible. They wanted it to feel like one large shot which meant choosing the right moments to change cameramen and switch lenses quickly. They were very much in the moment like we were. At one point the camera became covered in thick mud, I have never seen a camera crew work so fast; throwing a bottle of water over the lens.

Can you talk about the highs and lows of performing for 12 hours?

In one of the scenes at the beginning, I had to sew oyster shells on the disciples’ jackets as part of the preparations for the festival before the rituals started. Rehearsing this was tough, it was a durational task and I needed to know what it felt like. However, during the live performance, it felt like that scene started all the excitement for me. It genuinely felt like the preparations for the festival.

The endurance we had to go through during the procession was really tough and a full-on shock. We had never done a full run through of this scene; I think we were running on adrenaline by this point.

Did anything happen unexpectedly during the performance?

During the Last Supper scene, there was a slight miscalculation on the tide levels. The moon had been very strong and made the tides very extreme. Over the 30-minute duration of the meal, it was supposed to start at ankle height and then finish at waist height. When the actors were wading out, they were already at waist height from the start. The last supper table had been nailed down so they couldn’t move the table or the chairs. They stayed in character, even when they were completely soaked through and the bread was flying away.

“To see theatre boundaries being broken in a time that feels so bleak for the arts is powerful and the fact there has been such a response to it seems incredible. It was an unforgettable experience.”

The Third Day available on HBO, Sky Atlantic and Sky Arts:

Images: ‘Punchdrunk’s The Third Day: Autumn. Photograph by Julian Abrams’
Images: ‘Punchdrunk’s The Third Day: Autumn. Photograph by Julian Abrams’
Images: ‘Punchdrunk’s The Third Day: Autumn. Photograph by Julian Abrams’

The Third Day: Autumn