For the conceptually-challenged – or just plain baffled – a recent interview from Tim Crouch might prove something of a Rosetta Stone for his productions. “If we work too hard at making everything look like the thing we say it is,” the writer and director says, “then we’re also removing any sense of the game of art.” In the case of Adler and Gibb, the game of art is a scavenger hunt for sense in a mirror maze where fact, fiction, time and space are reflected and distorted incessantly. Crouch has spared no patience in painting his detail inch-thick: the fictitious lives of two infamous artists; a jittery student presenting a lecture on them; her later-life self preparing to play one of them on the big screen and, finally, the movie itself. Crouch is clearly unafraid of a challenge. The question for the audience is whether the challenge takes the fun out of the game.
The form of the show is a cadaver with its putrefaction reversed. We begin with the skeleton, each scene slowly layering on membrane and muscle until we are left with the starry and manufactured product at the play’s end. Lizzie Clachan’s pleasant backstage scene opens with a props table by which ASMs chat and children doodle. The performers emerge in their scanties and begin, wittily, with one of Sanford Meisner’s repetition exercises. These normally involve the actors observing one another’s every flicker of behaviour, but in a sly quirk here they face away, out towards the audience, physically unresponsive, limbs limp and still. This curious approach continues throughout the first half, kept engaging by some tremendous vocal work and the comical delegation of stage management to the two children. Occasional exchanges ping out beautifully despite the unnatural delivery (“We’re happily married.” says Louise of her husband, after the throes of an alfresco bang with her acting coach at Adler’s remote cottage. “Whatever gets you off,” he replies). Eventually these Method-mad pilgrims are disturbed by the widower of their hallowed subject – a shock-haired, mouldering Gibb. Amelda Brown’s crotchety hermit, cord tied listlessly around her pants, is played touchingly, and funnily; her shotgun prop exchanged for a badminton racket, a swimming aid, a lobster.
Yet the play’s tireless revision dissuades serious investment. After a child playing a dog is bludgeoned with an inflatable baseball bat (children and animals and children playing animals, all the old theatrical no-nos are quite literally beaten to death), an audience member in the next seat sighs, “That was done better in Saved.” A sense of connective form is attempted by the younger Louise presenting her lecture for the exam board, and as cute as the art within art being dissected by an art student may be, these interruptions become consistently jarring.
Integral as it may be to the concept, it’s a pity the performers are only permitted to interact with each other towards the end of the second half. When the play finally takes on the traditional effects of a play the performances become gripping. Set free to strut the stage, Denise Gough is a powerhouse of dubious charm, from a parody of Hamlet’s Yorick moment all the way up to her final take onscreen and her delightfully tongue-in-cheek award acceptance. The final film, as Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design soars and Natasha Chivers’ lighting blazes, is one of the tranquil highlights of the piece, which is, in its own way, troubling. Is this final product heightened by having witnessed the immoral chaos that created it? Or is it simply liberation from the experimental gusto that lifts the spirits? Art’s power may be the ability to contain the idea of one thing inside of something else, but the idea behind these two hours is left as tightly wrapped as a game of pass-the-parcel.
Theatre might well be in need of a shake-up, and there can be nothing but admiration for those who try and advance a movement under their own steam. But beginning with a story that doesn’t take a high-concept aficionado to fathom might be a better start. “As soon as you put something real on stage, it stops the theatre,” Crouch says. But theatre hasn’t stopped at all. It has kept moving for hundreds and hundreds of years. Perhaps not in the direction all of us would like, but it cannot be accused of a lack of innovation, of reinvention, of wild evolution. And Crouch’s piece, bewildering as it is, is no exception.