Grief and authorship go under the microscope in this modern experimental classic
This review is from 'An Oak Tree's June run at London's National Theatre
A jobbing actor who reinvented himself as a mischievous master of meta-textual playwriting, Tim Crouch is a revered figure in the world of experimental theatre. And he’s increasingly found himself feted by the mainstream: last year the Royal Court staged his brain-frying first ‘proper’ play ‘Adler & Gibb’ in its main house; and now the NT hosts what they’re calling the ‘tenth anniversary revival’ of 2005’s ‘An Oak Tree’.
In fact, this singular show has been resurrected regularly over the last decade, and the concept of ‘reviving’ it is in interesting one, because it has to be recast on a nightly basis. One member of the cast is always Crouch. And the other member of the cast is always played by an actor who has never previously seen or read ‘An Oak Tree’.
Like everything Crouch has written, ‘An Oak Tree’ is about authorship. The overtly artificial nature of the set up, in which the other performer – on the first night Irish actor Conor Lovett – is constantly fed lines and directions by Crouch, is reflexively pointed out at almost every turn. But it is also earnestly about loss and grief: the poignant ‘fictional’ story of ‘An Oak Tree’ follows a grieving father (Lovett) who has tracked down the end-of-pier stage hypnotist (Crouch) who accidentally ran his daughter over three months ago.
And it is, audaciously, about authorship and loss at the same time: without being sneeringly ironic about the artificiality of the grief he has constructed and the feelings he has made us feel, Crouch dissects them and questions his own legitimacy in bringing this sadness into the world.
If this all sounds daunting cerebral: yup, that’s Tim Crouch. A disgruntled punter very ostentatiously walked out of the performance I saw, which was a fascinating challenge to the idea that the playwright was in fact in control. But ultimately she didn’t disrupt the show, and I don’t think her grievance was fair: ’An Oak Tree’ isn’t a cold art experiment, but a piece of theatre underpinned by a wide-eyed desire to explore art, a genuine desire to entertain an audience, and a powerful reverence for the sanctity of grief.