The world of conceptual art is vulnerable to a good critical drubbing – its pretensions and absurdities; its arch and opaque prose; its stink of formaldehyde and money. It is a sitting duck for cheap shots, and not so cheap shots, and received opinions and cant. One of Tim Crouch’s greatest achievements has always been, and continues to be in Adler & Gibb, his perception of conceptual art as a sort of intercessory for fundamental questions of truth, representation, identity and, thrillingly here, appropriation.
It begins with that age-old artistic hoot – the Nat Tate routine. Adler and Gibb, names well chosen for their resonance with Gilbert and George, Jake and Dinos, Bob and Roberta as well as a kind of 70’s Greenwich Village chic that might collapse at any moment into a property portfolio, are inventions of Crouch collaged from elements of the Fluxus movement, COUM Transmissions, Andy Warhol and many others. Janet Adler is the genius artist who rejects the commercialisation or commodification of her work and her identity as artist, while Margaret Gibb is the college graduate who attaches herself lamprey-like (Yoko-like, perhaps) to her coattails. The Royal Court and Crouch have made a half-hearted attempt at promoting the japes through a fake-timeline and a smattering of interviews, but as with so much in Adler & Gibb, it’s only one piece of a multi-layered and multi-media exploration of the nature of authenticity and ownership.
The game proper begins with the entrance of a man and a woman onto the stage, introduced by a nervous student delivering her thesis on Adler. ‘First slide, please…’ she requests, and these robed figures enter and stand dispassionately facing the audience. Maybe this is Adler & Gibb? They’re running what sounds like a Meisner routine, questions and answers. Maybe this is one of their works? It certainly looks more like ‘performance art’ than theatre trad. The first act works out like this, drawing us into the world of these two characters (not Adler & Gibb, as it happens, but a Hollywood star and her acting coach on a reccie) with a staunch refusal of naturalism.
It’s an extension of the dislocating approach Crouch used in his interactions with Andy Smith in last year’s what happens to hope at the end of the evening, but where that work developed the disjunction in there-ness and not-there-ness to mint a new approach to our understanding of a character’s relationship to their situation, to extend content into form, here it is a direct component of an occasionally vicious interrogation of the act of recreation and appropriation. Our characters, Sam and Louise, are here to refine Louise’s performance as Adler in an upcoming film. They’re visiting the run-down house that was the location of Adler’s final years and mysterious death in search of inspiration, but Louise’s apparent idolatry swells to sinister and morbid proportions.
Layers of reality and imitation slip in and out of place like the lenses of an optometric machine. Two children are onstage throughout, their ears protected from the action by headphones, a stage manager helping them to sips of juice as they sit and colour on an upstage trestle table. From time to time they bring props forwards to the performers, occasionally they slip wittily into the action. When Sam and Louise initiate a woodland fuck, one child steps between them, standing in for an innocently voyeuristic deer. In the interval they build a mound of sand that takes on terrible significance. There’s a bit with a dog and a club which is the cruellest and the best joke we’re going to get in the theatre all year. Crouch and co-director Karl James use them to stunning effect to shatter pretentions of authenticity while at the same time injecting a danger or an irony into scenes which is nerve-racking and real.
Crouch enjoys the fact that, for all of its semiotic games, Adler & Gibb has the structure of a thriller, a ‘raid’, and these elements are surprisingly effective. When Sam and Louise encounter the aged Gibb in the ruins of her house, seizing on her as a link to their precious Adler, the writing punches hard and the descent into darkness and violence is all the more effective for the staccato flickering of theatrical language.
Because Crouch seems largely interested in form in how it offers a deeper and more profound access to essential and humane areas of human experience. Above everything, Adler & Gibb is concerned with the privacy and dignity of our lives. Situating art and the creation of art as part of a process of commodification of this dignity is obviously important, but they’re really only a mucky by-product of the concept of possession, which is itself a corruption and fucking over of existence, facilitated by duplication and dissemination. What could be more deathly to the process of creation than the act or the state of possession? And good God, how monstrous is it that love or a love can become as vulnerable to this grinding process as art is. The final confrontation between Gibb and the fans who become her gaolers restates that old truth that as lovers, we have a habit of killing the thing we love. And that as lovers of art we are prone to necrophilia, and even while admiring the impermanence and emergence of a fragile beauty, we can never leave it to rest in the earth, we’re always grubbing about at its graveside or pinching the bones and scraps of dried skin to wear over our own, like medals self-awarded for extreme wealth or exotic taste.
From those first moments of see-sawing Meisner to a jaw-dropping hyper-real filmed climax, Crouch slices his way confidently through the paradox of a play which is pretty much anti-play. He and James reject traditions while resting occasionally in clearings knocked back by contemporaries such as Katie Mitchell, particularly in their brilliant use of live recording in the final scenes. It’s hardly MOR, and the opening act in particular is (intentionally) alienating, but it rewards patience and demands constant engagement and reflection. Fortunately, they direct an excellent cast, Amelda Brown as Gibb being the stand-out, clutching her wrapped in tattered clothes like Jacob Marley moonlighting in that house from Grey Gardens. Lizzie Clachan’s design adds a lovely extra dimension to the play of realism and artifice, arriving in chunks of set which look more like set than ever given the bare stage and context within the play, but which them combine to create an image (or rather re-create an image) with a sheen that is pure, ghastly Hollywood. Clachan works with Crouch and James to insist on a vampiric property within realism, as do Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, who create the high-definition nightmare of a closing film.
There’s so much more to be said about Adler & Gibb, so much more that it’s saying or gesturing towards, but as Crouch himself posits with his jolly broadside to academic art criticism, not everything benefits from endless probing and explaining away. While Crouch is thorough with his theme, he is never reductive, and like the long-ago kiss which powers Louise’s home-invasion, Adler & Gibb is a show to be experienced and digested, not broken up and set in critical aspic.