It’s a sweltering day and Tim Crouch and I are seated in a small office, lined with faded production photos, at the top of the National Theatre. We have both been given a glass of water. Only, these aren’t normal glasses of water. They are oak trees. Do I mean that they are symbols of oak trees? No, our water glasses are actually oak trees! If this exchange sounds weirdly familiar, that’s because it’s lifted from Michael Craig-Martin’s 1973 artwork,’An Oak Tree’, a mind-bending piece of art (or perhaps even performance art), and the original inspiration for Tim Crouch’s play entitled – you guessed it – An Oak Tree.
Craig-Martin’s work (which Crouch stumbled upon at the Tate Modern in 2003 during the run of his first play, My Arm) features a glass of water sitting on a glass shelf. Beside the glass of water is a written series of questions and answers, in which a befuddled spectator asks the artist to explain his intentions. The questions and answers ricochet back and forth like this: ‘Could you describe this piece of work? Of course, what I have done is change the properties of this glass of water into a full grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.’ The power of transformation – the physical and lasting force of the imagination – is slowly teased out until the artist declares (and at this point Crouch purposefully slows down his word-perfect recital): ‘The oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water.’
Crouch describes the work – which he is touchingly and openly passionate about – as ‘the most important piece of theatre writing I know.’ It is such a Crouch-esque piece of artwork, dealing as it does with the tension between an awareness of artifice and an acceptance of – or submission to – that artifice. It’s about highlighting the artistic process yet doing away with it altogether, and the crucial role the artist and audience play in this magical transformation. The piece was starting point for Crouch’s second ever play, An Oak Tree, which he first wrote in 2005 and is now being revived at the National. In the play, two men meet following the death of a young girl. One of these men – the father of the dead girl – is played by a different actor each night and the other man is a hypnotist, played by Crouch. Over the course of the play, the two men begin to heal and some powerful transformations, both within and beyond the script, take place.
The idea of a second actor, who will not have seen the script until he is on stage, came about via a series of conversations between Crouch and his regular collaborator Andy Smith. Crouch initially wanted Smith to play the role of the second actor (the dead girl’s father) but, as their discussions deepened, they realised that the notion of an ‘ignorant’ performer would add strange new textures to their story – and strangely textured story-telling is what Tim Crouch is all about: ‘I’m interested in finding forms that tell stories better – that free up the vocabulary around form and story-telling.’
Each prospective actor is sent a set of guidelines ahead of the show, but other than that he has to perform, transform and translate on his feet. The actor and Crouch meet one hour before the show, in what is really Act One of An Oak Tree (Surely – please make it be – the next step is to perform this initial phase in a glass rehearsal room, with the audience peering in?) This initial meeting is held in order to iron out any technical issues and familiarise the performer with the stage space. There have been certain performances when the actor has been so ‘ridiculously late’ that Crouch has been forced to consider plan B – using an audience member – but he is reluctant to take up this option; ‘If we hit upon any technical problems [using a non-actor] then the play An Oak Tree on that evening would be about someone having those problems and the play is not about that.’
An Oak Tree toured around the globe, on and off, for 6 years (through to 2011) and has taken root in LA, Melbourne, and most recently – four years ago – in Dublin. During a New York run, the producers latched onto the (box office savvy) idea of lining up celebrities to play the second actor and releasing these names in advance. In some ways, this use of a celebrity added a ‘gorgeously complex texture’ to the show, as the audience struggled to overcome yet another layer of artifice that the aura of celebrity created. In other ways, though, this technique was, in Crouch’s words, ‘heart-breaking’: ‘When there were ‘known’ people, like Mike Myers, we were sold out like crazy and when there weren’t known people we’d be half full. We went straight to Soho Theatre after that and I said categorically that the actors’ names could not be released in advance.’
Crouch visibly bristles when I use the word ‘celebrity’ when discussing the role of the second actor. It is a word he clearly detests. In fact, Crouch flinches (and boy does he use his face expressively) whenever we discuss the notion of acting altogether. Before he started writing in 2003, Crouch worked as a stage actor. It was not a happy time: ‘So much of my work is a reaction to the existence that I had when I was an actor.’ Crouch’s voice cranks up a few notches as he warms to his theme: ‘Yeah, the existence: the difficulties and problems I encountered, not just the practical ones but the philosophical and ontological ones. Being in that rehearsal room, being drilled into pretending to be somebody else, hermitically sealing down psychological motive…’ He trails off in frustration.
One of Crouch’s earlier works, The Author (2011), was a reaction to these frustrations Crouch experienced during his time working purely as an actor. The play, which critics adored and abhorred in equal measure, seats the audience opposite each other with just a thin strip of stage between them. A deeply disturbing production is then teasingly discussed, explored and elliptically described by the actors, all of whom are planted within the audience: ‘The Author is dedicated to the actor. On one level it is a love song to actors and how badly they are treated in the name of realism. The lengths people go to – the absurd lengths!’
Crouch is particularly scornful of actors such as Daniel Day Lewis, who is known to go to extreme lengths to inhabit (or imitate?) the real-life characters he plays. ‘I mean Daniel Day Lewis – it’s like, what the fuck are you doing Daniel? If you want to be Lincoln, just tell me you’re Lincoln and – bingo – we can get started.’ Crouch isn’t interested in creating a performance that tries to pretend that no pretence is taking place: ‘I walk on stage and I say I’m someone else and I’m just really excited about the space between who I am and who I say I am. The Author is the uber version of that.’
Crouch’s scepticism isn’t just directed towards a particularly strained type of figurative acting – it is also directed at the theatres and designers that follow suit: ‘Theatre should be existing in the space between the audience and the stage and so often there is a monumental, capitalistic effort to transform the stage, to hold all the cards on stage. I still love to see those kinds of plays but I want to deal the cards a little more evenly.’ In this respect, Crouch is wary of immersive theatre, which claims to give more weight to the audience’s imagination but, in many instances, only limits the imagination even more forcefully: ‘I sense with those big immersive pieces – those big expensive immersive pieces – when you go into a building and you no longer see the building, I think about where the capital is. What access does the audience have to the theatrical capital? The idea that because it’s immersive it is democratic – or it is a spreading or a re-allocation of theatre’s capital – I’m not entirely sure about that.’
The capital in Crouch’s shows – and I’m talking about actual money but also imaginative capital – is evenly spread. Crouch’s shows are relatively low-fi experiences, except for last year’s dazzling Royal Court show Adler and Gibb, which Crouch considers ‘just a larger version of My Arm’. But for the main part, Crouch’s plays unfold on near-bare stages, with deliberately muted acting and very few special effects. Crouch explains the reason for holding back and creating what he calls ‘effortless’ theatre: ‘I want the space to be regular but I want the transformation of that space to be extraordinary and co-authored by an audience. I haven’t spent six months rebuilding this place to be somewhere else. I trust that you can be somewhere else with me – and that feels like a re-distribution of theatrical capital, because I need you and you need me.’
The 10th anniversary revival of An Oak Tree is in the National Theatre Temporary Theatre from 23rd June – 15th July.
Photo: Jim Harper