Stories About Stories

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Originally written for Exeunt.

In my first year of studying English at university, we were all enrolled on a course titled ‘Literary Transformations’. The blurb on the website mentioned the story of Troy, literary tradition, The Iliad, mediaeval literature. I was less than enthusiastic. In the end, it turned out to be one of the best courses I took in three years of my undergraduate degree. Because actually, more than any of those things on the website, it was about the ways in which we tell and retell stories.

I was reminded of that course twice recently at the theatre. The first occasion was during Mr Burns, which over the course of 80 odd years in the wake of an imagined global catastrophe mutates an episode of The Simpsons through a similar series of transformations to that undergone by the Troy legend. The second was at Idomeneus, a playful exploration of the fate of the eponymous Cretan king after travelling back from war in Troy. And in between I saw Adler & Gibb, a piece about narrative appropriation of an altogether more disturbing character.

These shows are all stories about stories about stories; stories that are at once about the centrality, instability and dangers of narrative. We need stories, but stories can curdle and corrupt just as easily as they can comfort.

Much of the critical response to Mr Burns has fastened on playwright Anne Washburn’s use of The Simpsons as the cultural foundation of a fledgling new human civilization. Some shook their heads at the thought that pop culture would survive over great literature, while others suggested that an intimate knowledge of the television show was required to appreciate the play. There is a certain cultural snobbery to these criticisms, as Mark Lawson has pointed out, but they also miss the point spectacularly.

The reason The Simpsons works so brilliantly as the focal point of Washburn’s game of post-apocalyptic Chinese whispers is because it is already a gleeful mash-up of different cultural references. The Cape Feare episode that gets retold in each act (first as campfire tale, then as primitive performance, and finally as a gloriously gaudy opera) is a parody of the Robert De Niro film Cape Fear – which was itself a remake of an earlier film – and also contains allusions to numerous other sources. What better starting point to demonstrate how humans recycle and repurpose culture? There is also the suggestion that our cultural inheritance is as much a product of mistake and reiteration as anything else – a troubling thought for some, perhaps, but also a liberating one. Suddenly the behemoths of high culture look a little less indestructible.

For evidence that this habit of narrative borrowing and transformation is as old as the idea of civilization itself, just swap one Homer for another. The story of Troy that we see a partial glimpse of in The Iliad and that has filtered down through Western culture over thousands of years in countless different forms is perhaps one of the most mutable myths we have. In its intelligent, multi-layered retelling of one small facet of this myth, Idomeneus – both Roland Schimmelpfennig’s script and Ellen McDougall’s playful production – is sensitively attuned to the processes by which stories become solidified and then dissolved again into countless possibilities.

As realised by McDougall, the whole thing is an inventive modern riff on the Chorus of Greek tragedy. A collection of awkward, displaced strangers wander onto the stage and begin to tell us about Idomeneus, a Cretan king and general who has been away for years fighting the Trojans and has made a terrible bargain to ensure his safe homecoming. But where tragedy usually presents us with fate and inevitability, here the story is told in all its shaky contingencies, pausing and rewinding to offer an audience all of its possible permutations. This is no longer one story, but many, the once firm outlines blurred over the centuries. And now, Idomeneus appealingly implies, we have the choice to tell it how we like; we can change the outcome.

But there is a darker side to the playful, potentially democratising stories of Mr Burns andIdomeneus. In the recovering society of Washburn’s ravaged near future, an embryonic form of capitalism is driven by the desire for stories. Half-remembered lines of old television episodes become commodities to buy and sell, while competition between storytellers is cutthroat. And there is an even more crucial way (only lightly touched upon by Mr Burns) in which the stories that provide the foundation for a new civilization can shape what that civilization eventually becomes – for good and for bad.

The danger circling the multiple stories of Idomeneus is more elusive, only occasionally glinting beneath the grins and giggles of its mischievous players. Violence – conveyed in striking visual metaphors of water, ink and chalk – always sits just underneath the narrative, insistently saying something about how we tell stories of conflict. There is an implicit comment on the insidious ability of stories like this to rile and rouse, with their undercurrents of glory, honour and destiny – an ability that is unsettled, but remains exposed.

In Adler & Gibb, which is much more critical of our storytelling strategies than either Mr Burns or Idomeneus, narrative is both a tool for manipulation and a commodity to be traded. Tim Crouch’s knottily self-referential play shows us a pair of actors representing (at first cursorily, and then increasingly naturalistically) another actor and her coach, who are preparing to make a film about a fictional pair of contemporary artists, the eponymous Adler and Gibb. Supposedly on the hunt for authenticity, they break into the house shared by the two artists in their later years, only to be confronted by an ageing Gibb. This is all framed by another story in another time, as a nervy student delivers a presentation on the lives and work of the artists. Got that?

Throughout the show, Crouch repeatedly aims his fire at the ways in which artworks and the stories surrounding them are commodified by a fiercely acquisitive capitalist economy. Scorn is poured on the art dealers, critics, journalists, filmmakers and obsessive fans who all want a bit of Adler and Gibb – not just their work, but them as individuals, or at least the romanticised story that has been cultivated around them. Everybody wants a scrap of the myth.

There is also an important comment on the shapes that our stories take. Extending the focus on theatrical form that has characterised all of his work with co-directors Andy Smith and Karl James, Crouch needles once again at representation. Throughout the first half, dialogue is directed blankly out at the audience, while two young children disrupt the workings of the theatrical machine, standing in for various elements of the narrative and substituting props – a spade for an inflatable bat or a gun for a lobster (one of many sly nods to modern art). From this base, the piece moves progressively through realism towards a kind of Hollywood hyperreality, asking difficult, brow-furrowing questions about our artistic efforts towards “truth” and “authenticity”.

In one of the show’s crucial moments, we see a screen wheeled onto the stage and witness the first kiss between Adler and Gibb cruelly snatched for the sake of cinema – or, as the actor would insist, art. “Is this the way you want your stories?” Crouch finally seems to ask, as we watch brutality in the flesh morph into high definition passion on the screen. And the answer, uncomfortably, is “well, yes”. The high stakes drama and hyperreal film that emerge in the second half of the evening are far more gripping than the cool, distanced intellectualism of the first – a high risk but brilliant strategy from Crouch, Smith and James. If we stick out the frustration of the opening scenes, we get our pay off, but at a mind-twisting price.

In all of these stories about stories, there is a further comment to make about the presence or absence of irony – one of the most familiar characteristics of the way in which we mould our narratives in the 21st century. In his chapter in Vicky Angelaki’s excellent collection Contemporary British Theatre: Breaking New Ground, Dan Rebellato intriguingly suggests that a “turning away from irony” characterises a certain strand of British drama in recent years, pointing to examples such as Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London and the work of Simon Stephens. He argues that in these plays, irony has been replaced with “a self-consciously naive sincerity”, or “radical naivety”.

While the cultural bricolage of Mr Burns might share many traits with postmodernism, what struck me about the play’s central retellings was their sincerity. Here are a group of survivors, completely without irony, piecing their world back together through the recovery of pop culture. Even the final act, with its knowing blend of references, is played remarkably straight. Irony is not exactly removed from Idomeneus, but again there is often a startling sincerity in the possibilities that the performers put forward for the characters whose story they are telling. And while it is difficult to know what to grasp onto in Crouch’s slippery play, the postmodern irony that suffuses so much contemporary art is given a ribbing at the same time as its strategies are appealingly deployed, leaving it in a problematic place. In these stories, are we turning, finally, to a new mode of sincerity?

Taken together, what these three pieces of theatre amount to is an ambivalent affirmation of storytelling. Ambivalent because stories emerge as slippery, dangerous things, as capable of betrayal as redemption. Affirmation because their very existence performs once again the importance of stories to human culture and their inherent possibility. Perhaps it’s all in the telling.

Photo: Manuel Harlan.

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Tim Crouch

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Originally written for The Stage.

There is something satisfyingly cyclical about Tim Crouch’s work. The theatre-maker’s first play, My Arm, explored ideas about representation and realism through the unlikely story of a boy who raises his arm above his head and refuses to take it down. Throughout the course of the play, this pointless act becomes a source of global fascination, captivating the contemporary art scene.

Now Crouch’s new play for the Royal Court, Adler & Gibb, uses a narrative about Hollywood movie-making to return to similar preoccupations. In it, an actress preparing to play a famed conceptual artist goes to terrifying lengths to achieve authenticity in her portrayal, asking implicit questions about art, acting and appropriation. It is, Crouch suggests, “a very much bigger and more complex version of My Arm”.

Reflecting on the shows he has made over the last ten years, Crouch describes My Arm as the “mothership” of everything that followed. The play emerged as a result of the frustrations that Crouch had felt over several years as a jobbing actor – frustrations both with the mechanisms of the industry and with what he saw as accepted theatrical form. Writing My Arm in his late 30s was, he recalls, a “last ditch attempt” to rekindle his passion for performance.

After graduating from Bristol University, Crouch began his career as a member of a devising cooperative in the city, which was the start of what he describes as “the most extraordinarily intense and wonderful and fulfilling time”. Struggling to find other work in his late 20s, however, Crouch pursued formal training at Central School of Speech and Drama. It was, he feels, a decision that the industry forced him into.

“You would go for auditions or interviews with the traditional sector and everything you had done, no matter how brilliantly creative it was, didn’t seem to have any currency in those interviews,” he remembers. “I would say that’s still the same now. There is a very marked career path and certain jobs or certain venues or certain directors have more points than other jobs and venues and directors, and so it feels like the deal is you get as many points as you can by working in this place or that place.”

As well as resisting this rigid and competitive culture, My Arm kicked back against the dominant form of psychological realism that had informed Crouch’s training. The play is written as a first person monologue, narrating events from the perspective of the character who fatefully decides to thrust his arm into the air. When Crouch performed the piece, however, his arms remained firmly at his sides, immediately challenging straightforward representation.

“I was interested in a different kind of reality,” Crouch explains. The show was also “a provocation to an audience to get involved more”. At the outset, audience members were asked to contribute personal items to the staging of the play, making explicit the necessity of their presence “to complete the experience”.

But while plays like My Arm might act as vehicles for sometimes complex ideas about theatre and the world, Crouch insists that they are absolutely rooted in story. “If I wanted to just ask questions about theatre and representation, I would become an academic,” he says. “I want to make theatre and I think theatre’s strength is narrative, a shared narrative, the passing of narrative. And so all of the pieces that I’ve made have been first and foremost about the story.”

Crouch describes his second show An Oak Tree, for instance, as “a little dance between form and narrative”, but one in which the narrative itself was vital. This show’s central formal device was the use of a different actor every night to perform the two-hander opposite Crouch without any prior knowledge of the play. Unmoored from their usual reference points, this second performer would flounder in the same way that the character, a man whose daughter has been killed in a car accident, is undone by his grief.

“I would want there to be a dialogue between form and content,” Crouch elaborates, pausing to note with a laugh that he sounds like a professor. “But in a very fleshy, pragmatic way, that’s what it is,” he goes on. “There are formal devices in all my plays that are only there because they deepen the telling of the story.”

In ENGLAND, the transplanting of theatre into a gallery space acted as a metaphor for the heart transplant that is central to the play’s narrative, while The Author engaged with its site in an altogether more controversial way. Commissioned for the Upstairs space at the Royal Court, the play was entirely contained within its audience. Performers sat amongst theatregoers in two banks of seating facing one another, and the events they described took place in audience members’ minds rather than on the stage.

“In The Author we are the audience as well, so their temperature is our temperature,” says Crouch of performing the piece. It was a show that pushed audiences into uncomfortable territory, alluding to the Royal Court’s history of shock and violence during the “in-yer-face” period of the 1990s and questioning the ethics of representation. Its disturbing subject matter and exposing focus on the audience provoked a startling range of reactions.

“At times in that show the audience took us to a really difficult place,” Crouch admits. “I had a physical threat in that show; people swearing, shouting, walking out.” This splitting of opinion, however, was encouraging to Crouch – “I’m excited when people either hate it or love it” – and reaffirmed his interest in active engagement with an audience.

“The audience is absolutely fundamental to my thinking,” he says. “They provoke and they incubate the form – they hatch the form”. Crouch is also keen to stress that “immaculate attention” was paid to the audience’s experience during the making of The Author; it was never about provoking for provocation’s sake. “But what you can never do as a theatre-maker is second guess what an audience is bringing to the theatre,” he adds. “By and large I try to keep things open, so it’s all interpretable.”

So central were the audience to The Author that people even began to mistake the title of the show. “A lot of people go ‘I saw your play The Audience’, and I go OK, right,” Crouch laughs. “I really like it when people forget or confuse what it was called, because it could easily be called The Audience. I suppose one of the suggestions in that play is that the audience is the author.”

Although The Author went on to tour elsewhere, it was always set at the Royal Court, intimately responding to the site of its commission and creating a fascinating “slippage between the location and the theatre”, as Crouch puts it. Adler & Gibb, which brings Crouch back to the Court, is less specifically grounded in the theatre’s history and location. While it is “absolutely written for a theatre”, the show speaks to ideas that are common to all theatre spaces: performance, representation, the blurring of truth and fiction.

When I speak to Crouch at the Royal Court, he is nearing the end of the first week of rehearsals. During the morning I spend with them, the cast are playfully exploring the relationships between their characters and with the audience, prodding at realist conventions while grappling with the challenges that Crouch’s script presents. One of these challenges is the onstage presence of two eight-year-old children, who are not characters in the play but remain present throughout.

“I’m excited about their formlessness,” Crouch tries to explain the thinking behind this surprising choice. He adds, in resistance to the instrumentalising of art as a form of education, that “art should be about unknowing something rather than knowing something”. Unlike their adult counterparts, Crouch argues that children are happy with “unknowing” and do not need realistic representation as a spur to their imaginations; “a child doesn’t need to exert anything to transform something into something else”.

It is in Adler & Gibb that Crouch’s recurring interrogation of realism reaches its zenith. At the same time as questioning realist representation in theatre, the new play is deeply interested in the medium of film, which Crouch describes as “the high tide mark of realism”. Recalling Hollywood actors’ lauded transformations into real people – think Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher or Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles – Adler & Gibb examines the “strange exertions towards reality” that cinema encourages and celebrates.

“It’s a political idea for me,” says Crouch, “in terms of that idea of acquisition; acquiring reality, trying to buy or own reality. And realism to some degree being an attempt to fix something and to own something, which I have a question about.”

Crouch also has a question about the idea of individual genius that this tendency enshrines. Although it happens on a bigger scale in Hollywood – as depicted in Adler & Gibb – Crouch sees it infecting the theatre industry as well, pointing to the recent example of Birdland at the Royal Court and the central attraction of leading actor Andrew Scott.

“It’s an amazing performance by Andrew Scott – what the fuck does that mean? To make a piece of work where we come away and go ‘that’s an amazing performance’ is kind of ignoring the fact that it’s only an amazing performance if it’s serving the piece of work that it’s in. The piece of work is the thing that we should be there for, because that’s the art form.”

Crouch goes on to suggest that “it’s like having a beautiful diamond on a rather dull canvas, and you just go ‘that’s an amazing diamond’, when actually the artist wants you to think about the whole canvas.” Instead, he says, individual theatre-makers “shouldn’t be thought of as geniuses, because it gets in the way of what the work is trying to do”.

For this reason, Crouch is keen to emphasise the close collaboration that has characterised his career as a theatre-maker. “I wouldn’t want anyone to come in going ‘I’m going to see a Tim Crouch show’,” he says. Although his name most frequently gets attached to the work, he is adamant that his shows are the product of collaborative processes, shaped by the input of the rest of the creative team.

“I’m lucky in that I have two very close allies and collaborators and sounding boards in Karl James and Andy Smith and that we have been talking about the work for a long time now,” Crouch tells me, referring to his co-directors. As an actor himself, with bitter experience of all the frustrations that can involve, he also takes care to welcome the thoughts of performers.

“Why would you ignore the presence of the people in their room and their intelligences?” Crouch asks, incredulous at creative processes that do not encourage collaboration in the rehearsal room. “I’m trying to some small degree to challenge some of the practices that I have problems with, or I had problems with when I was an actor,” he adds, returning once again to the impetus of his work. For Crouch, it is vital to stretch the conventions of the industry, encouraging ways of working that nurture creativity.

“It’s about doing the best thing for the work, and the best thing for the work is to create an open space and to allow contributions to the open space,” he says. “Why would that be such a radical idea?”

Photo: Richard H Smith