at the Royal Court Theatre, Thursday 26th June 2014
I love how proud Tim Crouch is of John Peter’s assessment of An Oak Tree in 2007: “Some people will do anything to avoid writing a real play, possibly because they’re not sure they can.” You can find the quote in many places, not least on twitter where Crouch frequently cites it in discussion of his work. Similar things, we know, were said of Waiting for Godot and Blasted, so Crouch is in good company. What’s interesting about Adler & Gibb, however, is that it’s arguably the playwright’s most play-like play yet, and that’s not something felt only as a result of its context on the Royal Court main stage. Though formally and intellectually challenging, this is a play which has recognisable characters, a ‘proper’ set and – most strikingly of all – genuine emotional journeys. Its not that these things are absent from Crouch’s earlier work, of course, merely that here they are more visibly on the surface.
That ‘surface’ is crucial to Adler & Gibb. For the first act, all we really get is surface. A student – Rachel Redford – stands in front of the stage at a lectern, giving a lecture on fictional artist Janet Adler in order to discuss “how an artist or artefact represents the culture in which it was produced”. Every time she says “slide”, we get a snippet of dialogue between Brian Ferguson and Denise Gough, who stand on a relatively empty stage but for a couple of people and tables set at the back. An emphasis on language soon becomes apparent, as they stand still and face forward, rarely looking at each other at first so that we only hear words, devoid of much emotion.
Slowly, our lecturer begins to flesh out the life of Janet Adler and her relationship with Margaret Gibb. Whilst we listen to this talk (which slowly but imperceptibly begins to fall apart throughout the course of the performance), the two ‘characters’ begin to become more fleshed out, thanks both to the deluge of information given to us by the student and the help of two small children on stage who, given instructions via wireless headphones, begin to dress the actors. At times, the props and costumes they are given are misleading, but they nonetheless ask us to question how we are finding this new-found meaning: from the words spoken in the lecture, or the additional visual clues on stage?
Over the following two hours, we watch an actor, Louise (Denise Gough), research and rehearse the role of Janet Adler for a film, along with Sam (Brian Ferguson). Their journey culminates in a visit to the home of Adler’s partner, Margaret Gibb, and a beautifully moving scene played ‘to camera’. Questions about authenticity and artistry are raised, and Crouch takes care to interrogate the methods by which acting creates meaning.
Many critiques of the show have commented on the intersection between life and art. Beccy Smith in Total Theatre suggests the play considers “the murky territory where art meets life”, whilst Matt Trueman suggests that “Crouch is grappling – really grappling – with what it means to exist now, in 2014, with our virtual reality, surrounded by signs and simulacra, with the past regurgitated as reference and retro. Where is truth in all this? Where does art stop and reality begin? Where is life?”
These assessments are certainly true, but it seems to me that Adler & Gibb goes deeper than that. More than simply asking questions about life, Crouch instead interrogates the relationship between death and art.
Within the world of the play, the lecture and the subsequent film made about Adler simply wouldn’t exist if Janet Adler hadn’t died. Art about life is thus spawned by the end of that life.
At first, this notion that death is what governs the play may seem to be simply based on its broad ‘narrative’ thrust. Due to Adler’s non-existence, for example, Louise can now step in to fill her shoes, both metaphorically and in the eyes of her audience; she will, once the film is released, come to stand for the artist herself, and she knows it. Via this point, Crouch makes a point about the value – in monetary terms – of art, with dying arguably being the best thing an artist can do in terms of her prestige and worth. In turn, ideas of resurrection and reality become paramount, with the film revitalising a life which in turn revitalised art. All this, of course, takes place within the context of a play, which therefore revitalises a fiction. You cannot have a resurrection without first having a death.
Ideas of death go even further than this, however, with Crouch and his co-directors Karl James and Andy Smith building death into their methods of representation. At the opening of the play, as meaning is made both linguistically and visually, we become aware that each time some kind of clarity is found, a possibility has died. When Ferguson and Gough stand on stage in nothing but their underwear, for example, the possibilities of meaning are as numerous as the number of people sat in the audience. Clarity, then, is found at the expense of possibility.
Throughout, dead objects are seen on stage; at one point, limp lobsters are held by actors, standing in for other objects, and later we see a child’s body slumped on the floor as a result of a violent beating with an inflatable club. Indeed, even the decision to use one object to stand for another has deathly connotations, as our minds attach a ghostly quality to these particular items. They are spectres, not quite of-this-world, not fully ‘alive’.
All this come to head in an extraordinary final scene. During the interval, the scene shifts to one of more ‘realistic’ dimensions, with wheeled set pieces forming the corner of an apartment. Our lecturer still speaks to us, but soon the tone of the previous act slips into something altogether more contemplative, as Sam and Louise continue their preparations for the film. A conversation between the actor – standing in for Adler – and the ‘real’ Margaret Gibb blurs into fiction as Sam wheels on film equipment, including a camera and lights. Evocative, cinematic music – created by Ben and Max Ringham – begins to swell, and we find ourselves watching a brutally moving scene between two women in love. The move to ‘realism’ happens smoothly and subtly, and you find your objective, intellectual self ‘dying’ and giving way to pure emotion.
It’s been said many times since the birth of cinema that the camera can only ‘see’ truth. If you place two walls and some actors in front of a camera, for example, the camera sees two people in a room, even if they are a smaller part of Lizzie Clachan’s beautiful design at the Royal Court. Yes, you can manipulate images and shift lighting to change the mood, but ultimately the camera never lies. The camera only watches; it is us who think and feel. This is Adler & Gibb asking questions of the way in which we interpret truth and reality when they are presented on film. “You’ve confused the story,” Sam exclaims. “I am the story,” replies Louise, demonstrating her deep misunderstanding of what constitutes ‘life’ and what constitutes ‘art’; now that the real Adler is dead, it’s all up for grabs.
Then, as a screen is lowered and a film played, theatre itself ‘dies’. It’s a weird and disconcerting moment, as the whole stage/audience relationship is shifted, and stands for the far larger questions of realism and representation.
What’s extraordinary here is the way in which Crouch allows the language and emotions of ‘truthful’ representation to take hold even as the play as a whole questions those things. You feel emotion even as you know you shouldn’t, and see truth even though you know it’s fiction. By drawing attention to all these things, however, Crouch demonstrates how the difference between all these things teeters on a knife edge, with only the framework and context pushing it one way or the other.
Theatre is only a step away from film. Truth is only a step away from fiction. Art is only a step away from reality.
And death is only a step away from life.
*Also, it’s worth mentioning that the published playtext of Adler & Gibb also has the script of what happens to the hope at the end of the evening, which made me squeal a little too loudly*
Photo: Johan Persson