Michael Craig-Martin's conceptual work An Oak Tree, on show in Tate Modern, consists of a glass of water on a shelf, together with an essay explaining that it is not a glass of water but an oak tree, because he says it is and this makes it artistically true. Tim Crouch's play An Oak Tree is about a man whose imagination, or force of will, turns a tree into his dead daughter, and his encounter with the small-time stage hypnotist who accidentally ran the girl down in his car.
But it's conceptually cleverer than that. The essence of a hypnotism act, after all, is making things so by declaring that they are so. When the bereaved father refuses to snap out of his trance, the showman finds that his words have indeed become reality. But it's cleverer even than that. For this two-hander, Crouch recruits a different second actor for each performance: he has a brief talk with them beforehand, but their performance is entirely unrehearsed – they read lines off a clipboard, or respond to prompts given directly by crouch or more obliquely through a pair of earphones. So the play's very structure is about someone telling another person who to be, what to say and do: again, about creating a "reality" through words. There are even dialogues between Crouch and the second actor, with the latter's responses all pre-scripted.
Towards the end it gets a little too clever-clever, as categories blur and we grow unsure whether at any given moment a dialogue is between Crouch and the second actor or between the hypnotist and the father, and then roles reverse and the father seems to be defining what happens. Largely, though, we go along for the intriguing ride.
Mark Ravenhill's Product is likewise an intriguing ride, not least because it is the author's first stage appearance since he was a student. Ravenhill plays a comically precious film director, pitching to a potential lead actress his screen project in which an English girl falls in love with a possible Islamic suicide bomber. The pitch itself is grimly amusing in its clichehood, and Ravenhill's 45-minute performance matches the character's florid pretentiousness, although he fails to break out of that mode for the few lines addressed directly to the actress. Likewise, Elizabeth Baker as the unspeaking actress could seem to pay more attention to the guff being directed at her.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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