Written and Performed by Tim Crouch
Guest Actor Julia Zemiro
Melbourne International Arts Festival
I wanted this to work. I was open and receptive, attentive and generous. I am enamored with the power of suggestion. I am perpetually entwined with and fascinated by the neurological and psychological effects of imagination.
The conceit had me, the mechanism fascinated me.
Apart from its much publicised fixation with the power of suggestion, I would proffer that this is as much, if not more, an exercise in objectivity. An attempt to an achieve objective view of a character, subject, story and concept from both audience and performer. Or it could be an exercise in moral neutrality. Tim Crouch describes a "process of co-authoring that takes place between audience and performer".
Crouch has put forward 'An Oak Tree' as a rebuttal to the theatre of psychological realism. He states in the program notes that he is "frustrated by... those moments that have been carefully honed by research and rehearsal to the point where their 'liveness' has been nullified".
I get this. I like this provocation. It was a similar provocation that drew me to Richard Maxwell's 'Good Samaritans' a few years back (see here for Theatre Notes review), which I loved.
I did not, however, love 'An Oak Tree'.
Where 'Good Samaritans' was all artful artlessness, 'An Oak Tree' was all artless artfulness.
The experience was so controlled - to almost an inch of its life - by Crouch, the delivery gave no space for silence, doubt and uncertainty. Is it not somewhat of a futile task to ask an actor onto the stage, in front of hundreds, and ask them "not to improvise" but to "remain open"? They will be vulnerable, they have their craft on display and who would not play to their strengths within that context? Who, I ask you, would not begin to interpret, to behave, to emote, to improvise?
Zemiro did, as I think anyone would, play for laughs a bit, make obvious that the words were not hers, play 'open', emote, but I can't blame her. She was being shunted around the stage, told this and that, her performance was very much being directed - it was far from a neutral delivery or direction - by Crouch.
The central conceit here was, therefore, totally undermined. It failed spectacularly as a piece of open theatre. It was boring. So boring that I found myself self-chastising because I was losing interest. "You're not being open enough" I told myself, "You're attention span is woefully stunted, you're probably one of those people who can't even be hypnotised, who aren't 'open' to it."
An aside: a friend of mine has a song called, I think, 'The Non-Consentual Squeeze', written about those men, (they mostly are, aren't they) who come up behind you and give you an unsolicited massage whilst saying: "you're really, very tense, you need to let go of some tension", all the while your stress mounts because you're being kind of kneaded by a looming man with one of those soft, sensitive, 'I'm a good listener', creepy voices. These men haunt community choirs, yoga classes and the theatrical arts. Trust me, I was one as a teenager.
I felt like 'An Oak Tree' was in that kind of realm. It was a passive-aggressive control-freak of a play. It nodded and smiled at you whilst pushing you away and insulting you. It gave the careful impression of granting autonomy and the power of interpretation to its audience and its guest actor whilst yielding absolutely no control.
It is a theatrical experiment and I have some respect for it as one - but it is so far down the road. He has performed it with hundreds of people. It has become one of those "carefully honed" pieces of theatre that it was designed to reject.
I feel ridiculous for pointing out that we have zero trouble accepting suggestion. That is what the theatre is. Absolutely. If not that, then what? Approximately 30% of my total time in the theatre (or t.t.i.t.t.) is spent strategizing about what physical position would best allow blood flow back into my buttocks. I am never in danger of forgetting where I am. I mean, where would we be in the theatre without the power of suggestion, without the 'liveness'? This was established pretty early on in the theatre. You know, the whole massive plaster masks thing, the whole adolescent boys playing women thing. Who exactly is Tim Crouch expecting as an audience? And with what kind of previous theatrical experience?
I think he means film. Seriously. Film is what he should be playing with. Film is rife with psychological realism. Film is where 'realism' really is.
So, Tim Crouch then, in film, I suppose would be doing what Lars Von Trier has been. Destroying the artifice and concentrating how much we will suspend our disbelief in what is ostensibly a realistic medium.
So, then. Its been done.
And how can we achieve objectivity, openness, moral neutrality in the theatre? We can't.
I'll leave this confusion by quoting from Atwood's marvelous 'Negotiating With the Dead' and hoping no one sees me escape behind the smoke.
Was it possible, I said, to write a story with no moral implications at all? 'No,' she said. 'You can't help the moral implication, because a story has to come out one way or the other, and the reader will have opinions about the rightness or wrongness of the outcome whether you like it or not.'... It was Chekhov who famously said, and not quite truthfully, that he never judged his characters, and you will find many a critical review that tacitly endorses this sort of restraint. But the reader will judge the characters, because the reader will interpret. We all interpret every day... Language is not morally neutral because the human brain is not neutral in its desires.