The Studio, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Tim Crouch's productions are very difficult to review for a couple of reasons: firstly because any attempt at a brief description of what to expect when you go to see it can't help but sound pretentiously arty, and secondly because a dissertation could really only scratch the surface of the content and presentation style of one of his plays, so a short review could not possibly do it justice.
For The Author, the audience enters the space to see two banks of opposing auditorium seating with no discernible stage in-between. Eventually, Chris Goode, who plays an audience member called Chris, speaks from amongst us about the theatre (unlike England, which rewrote the text to take in not just the particular art gallery in which it was currently being performed but even the main exhibition that was on there, this play is set firmly in the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in Chelsea). The text is spoken by four actors including Chris, all sat amongst the audience: Tim Crouch plays a playwright and director called Tim Crouch and his actors Vic and Esther are played by Vic Llewellyn and Esther Smith.
Crouch's productions tend to operate on three levels. The first is the setting, which relates closely to the venue, so An Oak Tree was set in a performance space like this play and England was both set and performed in an art gallery. The second level is an exposing of the process of delivery to an audience, so An Oak Tree focused around a stage hypnotist show and used an actor opposite Crouch who had never seen the script and whom he manipulated and England was initially delivered as though the audience was being given a guided tour of an art exhibition but the guide was played by two different actors of different sexes. The third level is a deeper message that the play seems to be trying to reveal, such as the issue of rich westerners being kept alive by transplant organs from poor countries in England.
The Author discusses the process of creating a piece of theatre written by the character of Tim Crouch for the Royal Court about a father, played by Vic, who sexually abuses his fourteen-year-old daughter, played by Esther, in an unnamed Eastern European country. Chris talks about the various types of extreme sexual and violent acts he has witnessed as a 'Friend of the Royal Court', even appearing to revel in it, which is both funnyespecially for those aware of the Royal Court's traditional output, particularly in the 1990sand disturbing. Part of Tim's research consisted of finding and viewing extreme sexual and violent images and videos, which he showed to his actors during rehearsals. The process of putting this production together appears to have had significant effects on all three participants.
Crouch and his directors Karl James and A Smith manipulate the audience with long pauses, blackouts, long stretches of music without anything else happening and direct questions addressed to people sat near to them, to which they are allowed to respond but they are not bullied into doing anything. In a way, this is a very gentle and unthreatening type of audience participation which some enter into with more enthusiasm than others. While there are occasionally some exchanges between spectator and performer, the actors respond very little to any audience interaction and quickly return to the script.
The actors do not totally convince as audience members as their speech is ever-so-slightly heightened from natural speech, but then perhaps this is necessary for them to be taken notice of in such a situation. However there are great performances from them all, with plenty of humour mixed with the general chatter, the story of the play and some quite harrowing descriptions from all of them. The ancient Greek classic The Bacchae by Euripides is playing in the main house at the same time which also, of course, puts across the most harrowing events through reported speech rather than portraying it visually, but nothing in that production is remotely as affecting as some moments in The Author.
The production raises issues about real acts of violence or abuse, images or reports of abuse done to others and representations of that abuse on stage and considers links between them. It may possibly also raise issues of whether the images themselves can abuse those that view them or those depicted and change them in some significant way. Of course none of this is stated; these are questions that seem to hang in the air without being spoken and certainly without being answered. Crouch's theatre embodies Brecht's concept of a theatre that embraces its theatricality to make an audience think much more deeply about issues that seem commonplace or obvious.
Tim Crouch's wonderfully-profound theatre is always much more entertaining than you expect it to be, but both the issues it raises and the unique style of theatrical presentation that embodies the themes and issues stay with you long after leaving the theatre.
Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Royal Court in 2009
Reviewer: David Chadderton