I’m currently reading How to be Both, Ali Smith’s latest conjuring trick of a novel. Written in two halves that can be read in either order, Smith has talked about how the structure was inspired by Renaissance frescoes. At first glance, the final image appears to be all that’s there, but behind the frescoes are often under-drawings which are completely different. That’s how the book works: one layer on top, the other peeking through in glimpses from beneath, different but connected.
The fresco or palimpsest is a useful way of thinking about An Oak Tree. It’s theatre of multiple layers, sometimes visible, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s a show about theatre; sometimes it’s a show about loss, grief and absence; sometimes it’s a show about transformations and illusions; sometimes it’s a show about what we choose to believe. Sometimes it’s about all of those things at once. And now, ten years on from its first performance, Tim Crouch’s play has grown yet another layer, as many of its audiences come along having already seen or – like me – read it.
Like Smith, Crouch was also inspired by art – specifically, one particular piece of art: Michael Craig-Martin’s ‘An Oak Tree’. The artwork is simply a glass of water on a shelf, alongside text explaining that Craig-Martin has transformed the glass of water into an oak tree. It’s not a glass of water pretending to be an oak tree; it is an oak tree. “The actual oak tree is present but in the form of the glass of water”.
It could be an essay on theatre, where one thing is regularly transformed into another. Crouch both plays with that idea and constructs around it a delicate narrative about another kind of transformation. At the play’s heart – and it does have a heart, for all its conceptual somersaults – is a father who has lost his daughter. Or rather, he’s found her, transformed into an oak tree on the side of the road where she was knocked down by a car.
And now the father is on stage, confronting the second-rate hypnotist who was behind the wheel. No. He’s in a room above a pub, a year from now. But he’s also here, in front of us, at the National Theatre, and we are both an audience of theatregoers and the crowd at the hypnotist’s show. It’s complicated.
This complex, many layered fiction is all performed by just two actors: Crouch himself, alternately ingratiating and uncertain in the role of the hypnotist, and a second performer as the grieving father. In one of the show’s key devices, the second actor is different every night, brought up on stage with no prior knowledge of the script. This points up all the workings of representational theatre – we can never forget for a moment that someone is being someone else – but also speaks powerfully to the content. As this man coming to terms with huge loss, the second actor (a gentle, softly-spoken Conor Lovett on the night I attend) is appropriately lost and bewildered, feeling their way through the performance.
The play works on two levels, then: the fiction of father and hypnotist, and the theatre of Crouch and his guest performer. But the two registers blur and bleed, blurring in turn the lines between truth and fiction, absence and presence. Is it Crouch the hypnotist or Crouch the writer/performer who is in control, guiding his fellow performer? When the second actor asks of the young girl’s death “is there nothing we can do to stop it happening?”, who is it speaking? And even the framing, as Crouch carefully points out, is all (apart from a couple of ad-libbed asides) scripted. The second actor has no choice in the matter when he/she responds to Crouch’s questions or compliments his writing; it’s all words on a page, pre-determined and yet at the same time not really determined at all.
I often think of theatre as a magician’s trick: we delight in the transformations, but we want to know the secrets of how it’s done. The real magic comes from knowing that it’s not magic at all. Crouch gets that. He lays it bare, riffs on it. Look, his theatre says playfully, it’s just people on a stage pretending, but at the same time it’s something, someone, someplace other. As an audience, we believe and disbelieve the illusion at the same time. Like the punters at a hypnotist’s show. Or like a grieving parent, grasping for a presence inside an absence, searching for something to hold onto.
Read Miriam Gillinson’s interview with Tim Crouch.