Today I want to share some thoughts about a new play in London that has been making headlines among the chattering classes in the metropolis. Adler and Gibb is currently playing at The Royal Court Theatre. Written and directed by Tim Crouch, who is renowned for experimenting with and rejecting traditional theatrical conventions, it has created much debate, about both it’s form and meaning. As I have said before, I tend not to write here about specific plays in production, as there seems little value when most people who read Theatre Room are on the other side of the world. However, Adler and Gibb has attracted so much attention I thought it merited some discussion. The first article I read about the show, Is this the real life? Is it just fantasy? by Holly Williams for The Independent is a good place to start to get a flavour of the piece. I followed this with an article by Crouch himself for The Guardian, The theatre of reality and avoiding the stage’s kiss of death, which begins with:
The old showbiz dictum of never working with children or animals is not because they’re uncontrollable. It’s because they’re too real. Not realistic, but real. And when you’re an actor giving your realistic all, there’s nothing more undermining than performing it next to something real. The set collapsing is real. Your fellow actor forgetting lines is real. I would suggest that full nudity tips the scale of real. Actual sex is right over there, as is actual violence. Even a kiss. In a production of King Lear I did for young audiences, when Edmund kissed Goneril the play momentarily came to a halt because the audience could only see the real.
And ends by noting:
In my play there are children as children and there are children as animals. There is an animal as an animal. There are objects pretending to be other objects, light pretending to be other light, a set pretending to be another set, an actor pretending to be another actor. And a kiss. A real kiss.
It was this argument that caught my attention. Many times in my theatre journey I too have experienced the ‘real’ that Couch is talking about, which disconnects you from the ‘reality’ of the drama and connects you directly to the real world. I am convinced it is this that has shaped how I make theatre myself, trying to avoid the ‘theatrical reality’. Crouch also notes that
There’s a danger when, as artists, we attempt to annex the real and put it in our work, thinking that by doing so, the experience we’ll give our audience will be more authentic, more honest, more deeply felt or perceived
In an interview given to Aesthetica, Crouch also says:
It is theatre’s loss not to think more rigorously about form. Visual art has moved beyond all recognition in the last 100 years. Theatre is still mired in notions of realism. There’s a great quote from the American scenic designer Robert Edmond Jones: “Realism is something we practice when we aren’t feeling very well. When we don’t feel up to making the extra effort.” The form of realism is about an attempt to capture reality – and it is this acquisitive aspect of realism that I am interested in exploring.
Not surprisingly, the critics have tended to fall into two camps – love and loath – with regard to Adler and Gibb. Matt Trueman, in his review, writes that
Crouch is, at some level, offering us an ode to theatre: it is dual status as fiction and reality, its honesty with semiology. At its baldest, art just gives us objects. Film, merely fiction. Theatre, the sweet spot in the middle, can hold both at once.
In her blog, playwright Hannah Silva has written twice about the play, in attempt to answer questions she was left with – both in terms of form and message. Over all she says it is entertaining, strange, provocative, and a masterclass in theatre. She also shares a photo of a page in the programme/playbill (right) which indicates what will happen in the interval and that in itself gives you some idea of the unusual nature of the play. Below is a conversation with Crouch and one of his co-directors, Karl James, in which they talk about various aspects of the play. What has become clear to me as I have been trying to piece together a remote understanding of the play and why it has provoked the reaction that it clearly has, is that Adler and Gibb is one of those plays that keeps the watcher thinking and talking about it long after the viewing is over – a quick Google trawl through most reviews, both professional and personal, will attest to that.
Another writer and theatre-maker, Dan Hutton, writes:
What’s extraordinary here is the way in which Crouch allows the language and emotions of ‘truthful’ representation to take hold even as the play as a whole questions those things. You feel emotion even as you know you shouldn’t, and see truth even though you know it’s fiction. By drawing attention to all these things, however, Crouch demonstrates how the difference between all these things teeters on a knife-edge, with only the framework and context pushing it one way or the other.
Theatre is only a step away from film. Truth is only a step away from fiction. Art is only a step away from reality.
Clearly the bigger questions are about form, One reviewer for PostScript Journal spoke about the fact that the constant reminders of ‘real’ reality meant that he simply didn’t connect to the characters (although though it did make him think). On the other hand, Beccy Smith in her review for Total Theatre wrote:
Yet, as Brecht discovered, story’s seductive power has the ability to draw us in despite theatrical attempts to confound it. For all the clear and pleasing formal frames of the closing scenes (through cameras, screens, acting theories and film production), what lingers are the emotional realities portrayed.
And I suppose there you have it – or perhaps you don’t!