an oak tree – Edinburgh Fringe, Traverse, 2005
Tim Crouch – mind-games – Carole Woddis
Talking to Tim Crouch is like trying to skirt a minefield. You’re aware there are all kinds of pitfalls. You tip-toe gently and hope neither of you will blunder into the trap of theatrical pretension.
It’s lunchtime on one of the hottest days of summer, a week since July 7. We’re sitting in a pub in Barnes.
The Thames beside us is still as a mill-pond. In the stifling upstairs `ballroom’ I have just witnessed an extraordinary event, a preview of Tim’s latest Edinburgh excursion, an oak tree, opening at the Traverse in August.
Several times I have been near to tears. Several times, I have felt distinctly uneasy. I have also been aware of a growing hostility towards him as the central, leading figure whose persona as part-hypnotist, part-director has seemed to me the ultimate in manipulation.
I am deeply suspicious. Yet when I come to talk to Tim afterwards, I am beguiled by his openness, his honesty. It’s a conundrum, as is an oak tree.
Two year’s ago, Crouch’s fictional autobiography, my arm, took the Edinburgh fringe by storm. Although a performer for ten years, it was Crouch’s first exploration with the notion of theatre as the art of suggestion.
An oak tree, however, takes things much further. Inspired by British artist Michael Craig-Martin’s 1973 conceptual art-work in which a glass of water was `transformed’ into an oak tree – best not to ask how exactly; we’ll get into all sorts of quagmires about conceptualisation, life, death and theatre (of which more later) – what you most need to know is that Crouch has taken Craig-Martin’s initial notion and embroidered it.
That’s to say, he’s theatricalised and humanised it. If I tell you that Crouch’s an oak tree is like being at a seance, that wouldn’t be strictly true. If I tell you, however, that it involves a certain degree of improvisation and casts a strange spell, that most certainly is the case.
And when I tell you that it’s all harnessed to a story of loss and bereavement – a father has lost his young daughter in a car accident – you will see its potential for stirring up a whirlpool of emotions. Add to that a highly theatrical, some might say, sensationalist or at least publicity-conscious conceit, and you have the ingredients for, I can tell you, something unnervingly close to the bone.
Each night, you see, a fresh actor is introduced as a `volunteer’ to play Andy, the father and to accompany Crouch who like John Osborne’s Archie Rice in The Entertainer, is definitely losing it. Crouch-hypnotist also emerges as the man who killed `Andy’s daughter, Clare.
Many stories, many different levels, you will now be appreciating, are intertwined. If you attend, you will find yourself hurtled into this disorientating world of intermingling realities and illusions, where you know you’re being manipulated (aren’t we always in theatre?) and where Crouch to all intents and purposes appears to be controlling events. Yet I, for one – sceptical, hostile, troubled as I was – was sucked in and deeply moved.
Would you buy a second hand car, never mind your psyche, from this man? No, you wouldn’t. Crouch’s stage persona is creepily attentive, devious – a showman shaman-cum therapist.
All of which, when I confronted him at the end, Crouch defends with splendid rationality and patience. No, he’s not exploiting the current fashion for theatrical mind-bending. And yes, he’s delighted at my brickbat responses. He’s fed up with `psychological realism’. He would much rather audiences at least feel something rather than nothing.
`Unease is not an emotion I get often in the theatre and I like it’, he says placing extra emphasis on `like’. `I’d rather have that visceral response to something than just sit through a piece of theatre that’s been made by people who are making theatre’.
To that extent, an oak tree is a piece made in his own image. Indeed, he even describes himself in it as `a 41 year old, balding, with a red face and slouched shoulders’.
And he totally rejects my accusation of an oak tree being a display of the ultimate in egotistical control. `I really am opening it out to it all going horribly wrong’, he counters.
Somehow, I don’t think it will. Crouch is far to expert and the concept crafted (with poet-artist a Smith and co-director Karl James) with micro attention to detail.
Admitting to the striking parallels between hypnosis and theatre – `good theatre can place an audience into a low level trance’ – what is going on here is suggestion and theatricality working in powerful waves to almost induce catharsis in connection with grief, death and bereavement.
Given the fragile collective unconscious at the moment, it’s anyone’s guess what response Crouch’s clever, getting-under-the-skin approach may engender. I suggest it’s going to be lively. Crouch positively beams.
an oak tree previews at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh from Aug 4 and runs to Aug 28
This interview first appeared in the Glasgow Herald, 2005.