Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London SW1

Opened 29 September, 2009


Our responses to cultural input can be strange and complex. We generally learn at an early age to distinguish real from “pretend”, yet we relish theatre because sharing the same time and space with performers makes the experience more “real”. And what about verbatim or other fact-based theatre? Or fictional drama staged after research into real-life analogues of characters? And what is it that we get from theatre, anyway? Entertainment and escape? Confrontation and challenge?
Tim Crouch’s plays consistently investigate how audience, performers and material interact with one another, and they do so in deceptively low-key modes of performance. There is no “action” to speak of in The Author... in fact, there’s not even a stage, just two opposing banks of seating in which, amongst us, sit four performers including Crouch himself. He plays “Tim Crouch”, the author of a (fictitious) play in which two of the others (played by Vic Llewellyn and Esther Smith) performed and the third, an avid theatregoer (Adrian Howells), had an extreme experience. They speak to us and only occasionally to each other, sharing their views various anecdotes and experiences with us. It is, as Crouch’s script says, “an easy, playful presence.”
Almost imperceptibly at first, references to sexual and violent enormities creep in, gradually moving into the foreground until we are repeatedly questioning the proprieties of using such events, such knowledge, in drama. Do we devalue people’s life traumas by plugging them into an actor’s characterisation? Do we risk such energies spilling off the stage? Do we grow desensitised ourselves? How far are we as spectators prepared to sanction, to authorise, such possibilities? The repeated questions to us, “Can you see all right?” and “Are you okay if I carry on?”, draw ever more muted and uneasy responses from us as we watch, chiefly, ourselves and our own reactions.
This is not audience participation; it is the audience at once being the theatre and interrogating it. Lighting cues and musical interludes sometimes manipulate us overtly, on other occasions deliberately abrade against the mood of the moment. At the end, after the performers have left the space one by one, and without a curtain-call, we too file out to the unsettlingly wistful strains of the theme to Midnight Cowboy. Perhaps, just now, it could be replaced by that of a Polanski film.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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