“what happens to the hope at the end of an evening” (and others)

at the Almeida Theatre, Thursday 18th July 2013

In a way, it feels like Tim Crouch and a smith have been on a kind of sabbatical for the past three years, allowing for the dust to settle after The Author and freeing up time for Crouch to make his brilliant Shakespeare-inspired shows for children. Now, however, they are back with what happens to the hope at the end of the evening, the first show they have co-written, together returning to questions of what theatre is and what it can do.

About ten minutes before the show was due to start, Tim Crouch and Sue MacLaine came out from the Almeida auditorium (MacLaine was filling in for smith during this performance; more on that shortly). They headed outside the theatre briefly as the rest of us filed in, only making their way onto the stage once everyone had taken their seats. Already, then, boundaries between actor and audience were broken. As is always the case in their work, there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, only a shared experience where, by chance, a couple of people have chosen to do something in front of the rest of the people.

MacLaine (playing a smith) takes a seat stage left, a folder containing a script perched in front of her, and smiles at us. Crouch meanwhile stands roughly centre-stage, looking over at his friend with a somewhat lost expression on his face. MacLaine looks over to the usher, says “Is everyone here who said they were going to be here?”, and gets a “Yes” in reply. Now, the piece begins proper (though, of course, it started long ago).

The main ‘story’ at the centre of what happens to the hope… concerns two old friends meeting after two years of not seeing each other. One is based on the real-world a smith, whilst the other is played by Crouch seems to be a fictional character, or at least someone who isn’t Crouch (for the purpose of ease, we’ll call him ‘Tim’). From what we can gather, they used to be best friends and would often “put the world to rights” for hours on end in their younger years. But they’ve gone their separate ways and seem to have less in common than they used to. Tim seems somewhat violent and bigoted, and now spends a lot of his time travelling round the country participating in anti-fascist protests and has no problem with stealing from shops. Throughout their meeting, he gets more and more agitated about the presence of a group of ‘youths’ on the square outside his friend’s house. smith, on the other hand, has mellowed and now lives what we may call a more ‘respectable’ lifestyle, settling down with his wife and kids and working on a PhD. They grate on each other and don’t have much in common.

Whilst this is going on – the plot here is led mostly by Tim, who chatters to his friend without really letting him speak – smith talks directly to us about his thoughts on theatre and its audience(s), quoting various pieces of academic criticism on the subject and silently suggesting that we should consider our relationship to this piece in the same way. At one point, we are invited to shake hands with those around us whilst saying “pleased to meet you”, and later smith asks us to take our shoes off so we can feel more at home. It’s a simple trick, but as soon as our feet are free we become so much more relaxed, slouching in our chairs and engaging with events in a wholly different way.

So what about the fact that MacLaine is playing smith? It could be argued that this detracts somewhat from the point of the piece, which places reality in opposition with fiction and is structured around the fact that smith’s character is based on a genuine person. But I think that this interpretation diminishes the power of the work; the point is not that we see a real person put in opposition with a fictional one, but that there’s one which could be seen as more real. She still reads a script and still speaks in an ever-so-slightly heightened and performative style (I presume she uses a similar tone to smith). Yet MacLaine is definitely more ‘real’ than Crouch. She acknowledges that we are in the room and looks us dead in the eye, whilst Crouch obliviously continues the story as reality right until the final moments. Both parts as written are ‘characters’ so to speak, but one takes just a little more inspiration from what we call ‘real life’ than the other (apologies for the over-abundance of inverted commas, but it’s necessary to denote where I’m talking about accepted meanings of language, especially in this context. In fact, the many uses of that here demonstrates how the piece puts life and theatre in inverted commas to force us to consider them more carefully).

There’s also a fascinating power play which takes place between the pair, who each try to outdo each other at being the most theatrical. On one hand, MacLaine uses a script and addresses us, whilst on the other Crouch spends a good few minutes bringing on and arranging furniture at one point and seems to start ‘acting’ more when the dialogue contains higher emotion. Though we want to think that the smith character speaks to us more directly and truthfully, he in fact competes just as much for attention and utilises similar tools of deception as Crouch in the playing of his role.

This questioning of deception and truth is a theme which is also present in smith’s Commonwealth, performed by Crouch as part of the Royal Court’s Surprise Theatre programme last month (watch it now it’s bloody marvellous and you only have another week before it’s taken down apparently). In the piece, the speaker tells a story, which is essentially just the story of a night at the theatre told by referencing itself (“This is a story. All of this is a story. A simple story about something like this. A story about people getting together. About a group of people getting together. Getting together to do something”). What’s so extraordinary about it is that we never actually get told what the story itself is. Instead, we get a basic outline for a play and the possibilities it offers after the event. At the beating core of the piece is a desire to demonstrate that theatre is a communal experience, involving a level of togetherness which we rarely find elsewhere. All of which reminds me of this spot-on snippet from Simon Stephens:

Catherine Love also makes a link to Mark Ravenhill’s brilliant Cakes and Financesuggesting that there’s a selection of shows produced in the last month which have suggested “a theatre that suddenly seems to be thinking a hell of a lot about what it is and what it does” (Love is specifically talking about the Royal Court, but the Crouch/smith collaboration definitely fits into this). In this monologue, which is sort of verbatim, Ravenhill reads out a selection of quotes from playwrights talking to him about their “ideal theatre”. One suggests firebombing the Royal Court. Another advocates breaking free from subsidy. It’s a staggering, far-reaching piece of work which also manages to be incredibly inward-looking, asking those of us in any way involved with theatre why we accept certain structures. And behind him, we get a slideshow which alternates pictures of the City of London and close-ups of the Royal Court, so that we don’t just rethink our ideas behind the theatre (and like Love I say ‘the theatre’ to mean the Court specifically, but the point is that it, like any good play, stands as a metaphor for the whole), but also the tiny details which make up its physical presence.

What’s fascinating about these three pieces is that they are all basically blueprints for the theatre presented in a theatrical form. They are all exciting, highly watchable and in moments extremely funny, but they all ask us to take the ideas presented in them and apply them to other work, which isn’t just ‘about’ the theatre. They are all hypotheses for an alternative way of working, which takes into account the group of people sat in front watching and offers them the opportunity to change things.

[*This last paragraph contains a major spoiler so don’t read on if you intend to see the show*]

Which brings us back to what happens to the hope. Around halfway through the show, smith briefly explains to us that at the end of The Living Theatre’s Paradise Now, the audience was invited to walk out of the space chanting “PARADISE NOW” over and over again. It’s one of those famous stories many a lover of theatre reads about, and every time I hear it the idea thrills me. Then, at the end of the show, after smith has left Crouch looks at us and smiles. “Paradise now” he says, calmly. And again. And again. Five times in total. And suddenly, there’s a charge. Are we going to join in? Do we want the same outcome as The Living Theatre had forty years ago? And though its to be expected, no one does get out of their seat and start chanting. But the disappointment is quashed by a feeling of hope. Hope that, one day, we will stand up together and chant those immortal, sublimely idealistic words.

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