Osea, a small island off the coast of Britain reached by a causeway, is too unsettling a place to be charming but it is certainly intriguing. Its inhabitants add salt to bottled water to make it palatable. They also wear large fish heads and carry oversized scissors to “cut out” evil from children. Admittedly, they’re practising for a festival that will celebrate Osea’s ancient traditions. But the more you watch The Third Day, the more you imagine that this is what passes for everyday life there, at least according to this innovative new TV drama.
The Third Day – think The Wicker Man with a dash of David Lynch, reinvented for a prestige TV generation – has an impressive team behind it. The HBO/Sky series was created by the writer Dennis Kelly, who brought us the prescient flu-pandemic conspiracy drama Utopia and the gloriously grubby comedy Pulling; and by Felix Barrett, founder of the groundbreaking UK theatre company Punchdrunk.
The Third Day kicks off with Summer, a three-part section that follows Sam, a troubled father played by Jude Law. He gets trapped on this quaint – but soon to become sinister – island. In Winter, the final section, Naomie Harris stars as Helen, a woman who takes her two reluctant daughters to Osea for a short holiday. But what marks the show out is the middle section, Autumn, which will be a 12-hour performance, broadcast live.
‘The emotion is unrelenting’ … Law in The Third Day. Photograph: Liam Daniel/Sky
It has been in the making for seven years. Law – speaking to me over Zoom, along with Barrett and Kelly – was involved almost from the start but was doubtful it would ever be finished. He had been at school with Barrett, if a few years above, so knew him when the theatre-maker first made his approach. And he was a big fan of Punchdrunk’s pioneering site-specific work. “It sounded extraordinary and challenging,” says Law. “But then the years passed, so I assumed it was never going to work.”
Barrett was first asked about creating work for TV around the time Punchdrunk were performing The Drowned Man, in which masked audience members explored a vast disused Royal Mail sorting office in London, where an abandoned Hollywood film studio had been recreated. He needed a writer, someone who had worked in stage and screen, so he went to Kelly, who has written several plays and the musical adaptation of Matilda.
“We hit it off immediately,” says Barrett. “Didn’t we?” Kelly, sitting in his office, smiles and says: “That’s your side of the story.” At first Kelly was cautious. “My playwriting side and my TV and my screenwriting side are different. I don’t believe in mixing them up because you end up with either really televisual plays, or theatrical TV.” But he, too, had loved Punchdrunk’s productions. He felt like it might just work.
The story they were interested in telling, says Kelly, “was about going to a place, finding it sort of idyllic, but then being trapped when you realise it’s not”. Barrett had heard about Osea, a privately owned island just off the Essex coast. Previously home to a few bohemians, it is now uninhabited, though there are luxury holiday cottages and villas to rent, and it has been the site of exclusive parties. This show will only add to its mystery.
Fellow visitor to the island … Naomie Harris. Photograph: Liam Daniel/Sky
Law’s character, Sam, has a lot going on. (Warning: spoilers.) He’s involved in something dubious concerning his business, but on this day he’s also going through a ritual – one that concerns, we soon find out, the death of his child. A shocking event at the start (Kelly fans will be familiar with his hurtling pace) brings him to the island. Then the tide comes in, covering the causeway and leaving him stuck.
The decision not to entirely fictionalise the island was deliberate: it isn’t renamed, and there is a reference to its former owner, Frederick Charrington, a 19th-century social reformer who created a community for recovering alcoholics. That blurring of reality and fiction is a Punchdrunk trademark: their attention to detail in the worlds they conjure acts as a kind of trickery, creating a dreamlike atmosphere with no need for a suspension of disbelief. Here, Barrett describes it as “an experiential magic hour” where you’re not sure what is real. “You start to ask, ‘Wait a second, does this actually happen on this island?’ As soon as the audience have that seed of doubt, that’s a rich place to be telling a story.”
There’s a fair bit of running around and a good few scary horror scenes. Sinister villagers are fended off, and Sam mines some painful thoughts as he seems to lose his grip on reality. It must have been, I suggest, a physically and emotionally demanding shoot. “I completely underestimated getting into Sam’s skin,” says Law with a smile. “I think messing with grief, really sticking your finger in and poking around at what grief is …” He pauses. “The emotion is unrelenting for Sam.”
Punchdrunk production … The Drowned Man, set in a disused Royal Mail sorting office. Photograph: Punchdrunk
To fully explore his character, did Law, who has several children, find himself imagining a similar fate for his own offspring? “It’s a sort of muddy area,” he says. “One doesn’t sit dwelling on the loss of your own children, but you kind of poke around at what that might be. My children all got lots of messages during the making of this, telling them how much I loved them.” He laughs. When he became a parent, he says, “I started crying at anything. Everything emotional immediately goes to my relationship with them – and the capacity of love and the capacity of loss and all of that.”
Performing live isn’t new to Law: he has always mixed theatre with his film and, more recently, TV careers. But the 12-hour length of that middle episode poses a new challenge: “I’ve never done anything, or stayed in a character, for such a long period of time.”
In the first episode, Punchdrunk created a just-the-right-side-of-theatrical pub scene (in which the landlords, incidentally, are played with wonderful weirdness by Emily Watson and Paddy Considine). “Felix would stand up and say, ‘Two hours later’ – and they would all advance into a more drunk state or whatever. It was like stepping into another world. For all I knew, I was in a real pub. I have a feeling the live episode’s going to be like that – but for 12 hours.” Kelly asks, teasingly, how long those takes were. “Four minutes,” admits Law ruefully.
Meet the landlords … Emily Watson and Paddy Considine in The Third Day. Photograph: Liam Daniel/Sky
The pandemic almost scuppered the live performance episode. They’ve had to make changes to the plan and, given the endless Covid-19 developments, its fate is still not certain. The festival organised by the islanders, in which outsiders would be let in for the first time, went from huge numbers of visitors to just 20, but they integrated that into the story. “We imagined that the community stopped letting people in,” says Barrett.
There will be one camera capturing the day in a continuous shot. But, adds Barrett, “it’s definitely not television – it’s very much theatre, it’s got the pace of theatre. We didn’t want to speed it up and pander to a modern TV audience. We wanted to embrace the length and texture of it. It’s going to be an incredible experiment because you’re going to get under the skin of the community and the place and a belief system like never before, due to the sheer luxury of having that much time.”
Barrett doesn’t expect people to sit down and watch it for 12 hours. But, with a laugh, Kelly says that he does. Still, since there’s a chance it will only happen live without a catch-up, it does feel like the return of something communal, in an age when people stream shows whenever they want and most theatre productions have been shut down because of the pandemic.
During lockdown, the National Theatre and several other venues streamed some of their previous plays, raising the idea that they should be doing this anyway. Does theatre work on screen? “I really believe,” says Barrett, “particularly in the digital age, that the tactility and proximity to your fellow man that theatre offers is electric. But if you can’t have that, because of the world we find ourselves in, then I think screening is great. Make it accessible.”
“With this,” says Law, “what’s exciting is that it is happening live and there will be mistakes. There will be moments you maybe won’t notice, or maybe you will.” That’s the thrill, agrees Barrett. “The power of theatre is that tension,” he says. “You’re in the hands of the gods. There’s that moment when the performers breathe in, the audience breathe in and anything could happen.”
The three episodes of Summer launch on 15 September on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV. Autumn, the theatrical event, is broadcast on 3 October on Sky Arts.
Originally published: 2020-09-07 00:00:45