Originally published on Reviews Hub
Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree perhaps can claim to be the most influential play of the last decade. It’s challenging of form, its attempt to make a piece that could only ever work as theatre has influenced theatre makers as diverse as Chris Goode, Daniel Bye and the whole Forest Fringe sect. A thesis or two has been written on it, his work discussed and pulled apart in lecture halls and student union bars the length and breadth of this country. Crouch is now as mainstream as an experimental theatre artist can be, his plays debuting at the Royal Court and playing Off-Broadway and this tenth anniversary production having a run at the National Theatre before playing dates at the Edinburgh Festival and now rocking up here in Bristol.
Crouch has taken the actor’s worst nightmare, of standing on stage with no idea of what the next line or move is, and formed a 75 minute piece that comes across as a mix between a rehearsal exercise – allowing the actor to discover the joys of just being – while concocting a quiet and moving exploration of grief and guilt. A two-hander with Crouch as a magician (a second-rate one whose awkward patter conceals a hidden guilt) and the other role being played by a different actor every night, having never seen a script. On its Bristol press night, this role was essayed by Scottish actress Neve McIntosh, best known for Doctor Who and about to play Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible at Bristol Old Vic.
It’s interesting that we’re conditioned from an early age to believe in the magic of theatre. If we are told something is real, we as an audience are prepared to go to almost any length to keep up the illusion. We want to believe. If we are told a chair has a person in it and our narrator imbues them with character and personality, we don’t question it, we see it. As long as it doesn’t break its own internal logic then the magic remains. Crouch pushes how far we are prepared to go with this and finds out the answer is very far indeed. McIntosh, without being asked to drop her voice an octave or change her physicality and gait, becomes a middle-aged man torn apart by grief due to the tragic loss of his child, killed in a hit-and-run accident. In the rehearsal room, directors are always trying to strip away the artifice to get to the truth. The performance here shows that the best strengths an actor may have are full trust in letting the text do the work and just being focused on each moment.
Crouch guides it all along like the most brilliant of directors. In some moments, it’s manipulative. “Say yes”, he says. “Yes”, comes the response. In others, he pushes her to go beyond her natural comfort zone. He tells her he is about to humiliate her character in a hypnotist show and he does. He cruelly plays a trick on her, as him. She, as he, reacts to this. But he has also revealed that it won’t be her that will be humiliated but him as the magician. For every risk she takes, he’ll go one step further.
It’s a difficult show to condense down to 500 words or so. It goes down so many avenues, asks so many questions about life and about theatre that it’s little wonder that theses have been written on it. Perhaps over ten years it doesn’t feel as original as it once did, but this is a zeitgeist show, perhaps as important one day as Look Back in Anger was for those in the 1950s. If I won’t go as far as Tynan and withdraw my friendship from anyone who doesn’t love it, for those interested in the ever-changing landscape of theatre this is one to catch.