Let’s not trust the stage directions,” says Tim Crouch with knowing humour. He may be the writer of Adler & Gibb, a new play at London’s Royal Court theatre, but he’s far from precious or rigid about it. The rehearsal room is a place of free-thinking and, with a few weeks till opening night, changes are still being made to the script and ideas chucked around between the actors, Crouch, and his two co-directors Karl James and Andy Smith. Even journalists are welcome.
Which is what you’d expect, really: Crouch, Smith and James have taken a deliberately non-hierarchical approach in their decade of collaboration. “The work is developed through a dialogue,” says Smith. “[Tim] has a dialogue with himself, and then it’s opened up – to me and Karl, and now the performers, and then the audience: that’s the main dialogue.”
Crouch has built a name for himself as one of British drama’s great innovators, with plays that have disturbed and challenged the passive theatrical experience. In 2003’s My Arm, he asked spectators to provide everyday objects to represent characters, while 2009’s controversial The Author did away with a stage and forced the audience to watch each other, while also confronting their complicity in watching disturbing, violent content – prompting walk-outs. Actors don’t get off lightly either: An Oak Tree (2005) saw a different actor play the main part opposite Crouch, entirely unprepared, each evening.
Adler & Gibb is the first of Crouch’s plays in which he hasn’t acted; there was just “no part” for him this time, he says. It tells several stories: first up, there’s Janet Adler, a conceptual artist in Seventies America, and political science graduate Margaret Gibb; they fell in love, then retreated to live in isolation until Adler’s mysterious death in 2003.
Then, we cut between art student Louise, giving a paper on Adler’s life and work in 2004, and Louise today – a glossy actor, about to star in a biopic of her idol. As part of her “method”, her quest for “authenticity”, Louise travels to Adler’s tumbledown house where she meets Gibb. A tense stand-off ensues; debates rage on art, identity, ownership and the limits – both practical and moral – of attempting to reanimate a real person.
Like I said – he makes demands on an audience. And, as is typical of Crouch’s work, its themes shape its form. Adler & Gibb begins in a heightened, non-naturalistic fashion: actors face front, saying their lines with “no adopted accents, no gestures. No actions.” Gradually, this melts into ‘normal’ acting: reactive, emotional, physical, literal … Denise Gough (who plays Louise) jokes during rehearsals that they should put a note in the programme: “Don’t worry! We’ll do proper acting in the second half!”
This trajectory, from abstract to naturalistic acting, mirrors the plot: the narrative begins by focusing on Janet Adler and her experiments in conceptual art – the least representational or “realistic” art form – and ends with Louise and her experiences in filmmaking – the most representational art form, an attempt to convincingly mimic reality.
Adler & Gibb will invite audiences, therefore, not only to acknowledge the artifice of realism, but also our desire for it. “It’s a tide of realism, this play – it begins low tide and it goes full high tide, in story and form,” explains Crouch. “It’s not an attempt to obscure [things] for an audience; we talk about holding back and then boy, we deliver. They do get it all! We’re not wilfully putting them in a position of discomfort in terms of narrative.”
This is a feature of Crouch’s plays: yes, they’re celebrated for their formal experiments and rigorous examination of what exactly theatre is, but they also use that clever playfulness to tell cracking, compelling stories. Adler & Gibb is no exception; it has the narrative drive of a thriller. “There is a huge mental game of working out these tectonic plates of form and story,” Crouch says. “And they need to fit together really, really smoothly.”
They’ve also got a new trick in Adler & Gibb: children. Two young kids, untrained as actors, are on stage at all times. Their presence is “a foil” to the elaborate, posturing rituals of adult acting – children just play. They don’t need to “find their motivation”: if they want to be a dog, they are a dog.
“It’s a pricking of that absurd structure that we’ve built around us in terms of representation: kids are just so free from that,” explains Crouch. “The child actor – a child, pretending to be another child – is kind of stupid. There are these things that disturb naturalism, like animals, like children, like guns, like nudity: as soon as Ian McKellen gets his wanger out in King Lear, King Lear stops for a bit. I played Macbeth once and I had to die, to lie on the stage and try not to breathe! It’s absurd! Why the fuck do you need to do that?”
Surreal props also puncture the action. An example I see in rehearsal: Louise is holding a shovel, ready to dig up Adler’s corpse. The children then swap it for bizarre objects – a plastic cactus, a swimming pool float. But though this disrupts the naturalism, what’s really remarkable is that you still want to go with it. I watch Louise use her pool float “shovel” to beat a “dog” – actually a human actor – to death. It ought to be ludicrous! It is ludicrous. And yet, and yet … it’s also horrible. Chilling. And the fact that you know you’ve emotionally invested in the make-believe – letting your brain read “float” as “murder weapon” – somehow makes it more powerful.
“Perversely, they heighten the engagement,” agrees Smith, on the surreal objects. “An audience, I think, wants gaps to fill in. The Shakespeare line is ‘piece out these imperfections with your thoughts’.”
Their key concept is contradiction. If the audience sees one thing but is told another, that’s a problem they have to solve. “That’s where participation comes in,” says Crouch. “If you don’t close the logic, the logic is open and requires the audience to close it for themselves. That’s a truly participatory piece of theatre.”
In Adler & Gibb, Crouch satirises the film-makers’ urge to re-create and sell lives; an acting coach gives Louise a pep talk, helping her to discover “Truth. Commitment. Authenticity.” But then, nobody wants just Postmodern tricks or clever hollow stories – we surely do want to discover truth, to see commitment, to feel something authentic in the theatre?
And that is the ultimate contradiction that Crouch embraces: his stories say something true, do genuinely move an audience, even while flagging up their fictional status. “That’s the most exciting thing,” he says, beaming, “if you can generate real feeling through abstraction – that’s a holy grail, isn’t it?”
‘Adler & Gibb’ is at the Royal Court, 13 June to 5 JulyReuse content