AN OAK TREE Traverse, Edinburgh

You can’t label this extraordinary two-hander by Tim Crouch as “experimental” theatre, even though it uses a different – wholly unprepared – second actor every time, involves secret audio and audible muttere briefings and a handing over of scripts by the author-performer to his colleague; even though it drops in and out of levels of reality including moments when Crouch asks solicitously whether the second actor is OK, and that it plays recklessly with time, probability, meaning, the concept of hypnosis, and the philosophical idea that all of us perform our lives perilously unscripted.
But it’s not experimental any more, given that Crouch has been doing it for ten years with multiple awards. Whatever it proved, the piece continues to prove it to seat-edge audiences far wider than the cognoscenti who rejoice in novelty and metatheatre. So stand by: this is the moment to bring along a friend whose wariness of tricksy modern theatre usually makes him or her swerve to the bar for an hour, pleading headaches.
This imagined friend will be converted, though shaken. Crouch has humour, sincerity, belief and gentle humanity, and his topic is grief. He plays (when he is not being the writer-director leading the other actor) a scuzzy showbiz hypnotist who, three months before, was driving a car in the dusk and killed a girl of twelve on her way to a music lesson. He is stuck in trauma, blocked, hesitant, losing his grip on his act and his life. The other actor (in the show I saw, Aoife Duffin, young and slight and female) plays the middle-aged father of that child, himself stuck in grief, who improbably volunteers from a pub audience to go onstage.
And that’s it. The rest is their interaction, both during the show before the hypnotist realizes who the father is, and after it when the supposed pub audience have left, shocked. Beyond that, description will not help or enlighten you: just say it is one of the strongest, strangest, truest evocations of grief I have ever seen. The grief that traps, that deludes, that leads you in circles, fuels desperate magical thinking and can estrange one mourning parent from the other and rip families apart. There is guilt, too: a guilt transferred helplessly between the driver and the father, united in the narrowing trap of a fact neither can get past. It is the grief, brilliantly written, which can become a kind of synaesthesia so that words from a policeman fall “like concrete blocks in black” and lodge under your ribs, and in which your lost child seems to lurk in every space and crack in every object in the house and the world.
It is shocking, grippingly moving in moments but momentarily funny: it is held together by the sincerity of Crouch and the acceptance ,and unease, of the other actor. When, near the shining end, the creator drops out of character and turns conversationally to his colleague he asks “Don’t you think it’s a bit contrived?” . We laugh. It is that cathartic moment of theatre when, having been shaken into a community of pain, we breathe and realize that it was all in play.
Take that sceptical friend, do. But probably not if his or her own grief is recent. It’s strong stuff. to 16 August

rating five      5 Meece Rating


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