by Tim Crouch
directed by Tim Crouch, Karl James & Andy Smith
At the Royal Court until 5th July
For me, form is a uniquely contemporary expression. Form talks about “now” – about how we are and how we communicate to each other. It can speak more forcefully than the stories it contains. It is theatre’s loss not to think more rigorously about form. Visual art has moved beyond all recognition in the last 100 years. Theatre is still mired in notions of realism. There’s a great quote from the American scenic designer Robert Edmond Jones: “Realism is something we practice when we aren’t feeling very well. When we don’t feel up to making the extra effort.” The form of realism is about an attempt to capture reality – and it is this acquisitive aspect of realism that I am interested in exploring. Tim Crouch, Aesthetica Magazine
What I love about Tim Crouch and his collaborators’ work is that it knows it’s in a theatre. That doesn’t mean that it’s knowing or pretentious or any other adjective that gets put onto intelligent theatre-makers, it means that it starts from the empty space. There are chairs out there, a stage up here (at the Royal Court at least) and people will be sitting there and people will be speaking up here and what’s the point of ignoring that when it’s so full of potential?
I don’t think that I can explain why I liked the fact that there were two children on stage and we never knew quite why. I think I enjoyed it because they were living on stage, the theatre space gained a layer of lived-in-ness because they were on it, drawing pictures and making a sandcastle/grave. The fact they occasionally made a mistake gave it an element of school play, or children putting on a performance for family, it reminded us that when people put on a play they are trying. They played with the theatre images, they interfered with the narrative layer by introducing a lobster, or an inflatable hammer. The children couldn’t help not acting, and neither could the little dog that came on before the interval. They interfered with the canvas of the performance and reminded us that this is artifice, in a way that allowed us to see in a different way. Perhaps a contemporary version of Brecht’s distancing. It made the viewer question meaning in the same way Magritte’s Interpretation of Dreams did, taking that human need to make sense and using it to go beyond surface sense and find new meanings. And anyway, it did make a lot of sense in the context of a story about conceptual artists. The subject of the play is fictional, but it’s the only really undisputed layer, and the story that is constructed about these artists and their work is absolutely believable.
Having read a few reviews that say the first half was hard and confusing, I’m trying to think back to my experience of it. I embraced the idea that the children weren’t going to be explained, and that kept me entertained. I got the layered form of schoolgirl (Rachel Redford) giving a lecture, and animated slides on stage, and both layers in relation to Janet Adler, and the fact that the two layers were happening at different times. I got that the woman, Louise (Denise Gough) was (acting) an actor and that Sam (Brian Ferguson) was her coach and I enjoyed the Meisneresque theatre exercises that ask for repetition of words – ‘blue blouse’ to the point at which the words become sounds. Crouch is more storyteller than Dadaist so even when something does lose meaning it turns out to be important and comes back later in a new context. I don’t remember ever being confused by the narrative. Crouch mixes styles of dialogue brilliantly, the character of Margaret Gibb (Amelda Brown) had a totally different rhythm to her speech, her feet planted into the floor while her monologue looped around in short tense sentences – great use of non-naturalistic dialogue to communicate the most believable and human narrative thread.
It’s true that this is not a play about Syria or Nigeria or the EU … but we have enough reactionary reportage plays in England, and they never tell me anything I couldn’t find out outside of a theatre. I hope that the value of art hasn’t fallen to such an extent that it is no longer acceptable to question it in a theatre. I hope it isn’t trivial to ask what we’re all doing there in a theatre and what do we make art for and what makes it art anyway? Even if those questions are too art college-like, there’s also the human story, about ‘holding someone till they fade away’. For a long time theatre has been dominated by reportage-response naturalism. It’d be brilliant if stages like the Royal Court kept the door open for different approaches too.
There were two final layers to the narrative. The first gave us a glimpse of what the film about Adler would be like, with Louise playing Adler and ‘Gibb’ playing Gibb, it’s a slither of cheesy Hollywood, that ends in a ‘real’ kiss. The use of TV screen plus theatre continues the play on levels of artifice. Perhaps this would have been a good ending, but then comes the only layer that I couldn’t buy into. I had Adler and Gibb’s house in my imagination, I had the clutter, I had the window frames and the door, I had the barbed wire fence and overgrown garden, I took the tree/neon drugs sign and used that in my imagination, I could see it all and I could even see a dead body. But then they go and show us this on a film. A huge screen shows all the elements that I’ve been imagining. The cinematography of the film is average, so there’s nothing in it that I hadn’t already constructed in my imagination, and my imagination is better because my imagination is like a memory, I can sense the place, like a dream, like a memory, fragmented and incomplete. So the only layer of this story that I thought didn’t work was the screen, because it erased the layer that I could sense in my imagination. The only other niggle I had was the use of sound at the end, noise crescendo than cut out. It’s been used too many times and artificially amps up the impact of an ending, it didn’t allow me as an audience member to have my own sense of what the ending did. I preferred it when Mario the dog came on at the end of the first half, ignored the command to sit, had a look at us looking at him and wagged his tail.
Adler & Gibb is entertaining, strange, provocative, and a masterclass in theatre. I bought my ticket months ago as I thought it’d sell out, but it hasn’t, so don’t miss it!
Tim Crouch writes a good interval…