Tim Crouch’s latest play obliquely tells the lives of avant-garde artists Janet Adler and Margaret Gibb through two performance narratives: a young, nervous girl pleading for a scholarship by delivering a lecture, and two others (an actor and an acting coach) making a film about Adler by visiting her derelict house.
Nothing much changes in the girl’s narrative: she grows frustrated with her own unimaginative delivery, when the person she’s talking about (Adler) was so well known for pushing boundaries and breaking form. The other narrative, film star Louise and her acting coach, starts with them facing front, side by side, wearing only their underpants. Throughout the play they acquire clothes, accents, a set grows around them. Forest sounds begin on a child’s tape recorder and by the end are fed through the speaker system. They move from abstract forms to realism, gestures become reality. What begins as a piece of abstract performance art turns into a very realistic movie.
The girl leans towards the mike like a nervous student. She has thick rimmed glasses that she pushes up her nose and good luck charms on her lectern. She’s not on stage – she’s in front of it, escaped through that gaping hole called the fourth wall. ‘I have chosen Janet Adler for my study. Slide’ she says.
The action on stage starts at this cue. “You’re wearing a blue blouse” says the man in a thick Glaswegian accent. “I’m wearing a blue blouse” the woman replies. “You’re wearing a blue blouse” he repeats. “I’m wearing a blue blouse” she repeats. Again, again, again they call and respond like some exercise in jamais vu. Absolutely nothing is given away about who these people are and what their relationship to each other is and what they are doing. Children wordlessly offer them clothes. They are acting and interacting but not facing each other.
It’s a play that reveals itself very slowly, and by the end lots of very clever and meta and ring compositiony stuff has happened but I’m not sure what. It’s quite a lot like Synecdoche New York, Charlie Kaufman’s phenomenal film. They both build from normality (we’re watching a normal play, we’re watching a normal film) into something constantly trying to get narratively beyond itself, commenting on its own narrative. They both feature a character with a mysterious illness. The central narrative of both is an attempt to create a great work of art.
What struck me as an important theme was the relative merits of film and theatre. Film has to be realistic, reconstructive. In theatre we are used to seeing sets that are half formed and suggestive of something, forcing the imagination into doing its own work. Film is much less concerned with imagination than it is with recreating reality.
My impression of the play completely changed for the better when I found out, afterwards, that Adler and Gibb never existed. The lives Crouch has given them, the certainties of their biographies – like the fact that Adler never lost her German accent, or the famous art works like the dog or the painting they ate, or their reclusiveness – and the selected quotes about their work that are given over to that stunningly pretentious vernacular that only art critics seem capable of, these details are so completely thought through and believable. Absolutely bizarre enough to be the truth.
One of the characteristics given to Adler and Gibb is that they never thought of themselves as artists and destroyed most of their work. Their insistence on destroying their own art jars nicely with the attempt by Louise to make a film about them as artistic heroes: her film is a reappropriation of their ideals (turning the lives of two who wanted to destroy art into a piece of art) and a reconstruction (they are recreating famous moments from the lives of Adler and Gibb).
There’s not a little of Magritte in the play, although pushed a couple of layers more inward. A movie about the life of Adler and Gibb is not the life of Adler and Gibb. A play about a movie of Adler and Gibb is not a movie about Adler and Gibb. Except the difference is that, at the end of the play a big projector screen comes down and we watch scenes from Louise’s movie. There is no falsity here – these are actually scenes from a movie.
It is not easy to recognise a moment’s significance as it happens. I knew someone who used to say, when he was enjoying himself with friends or family, ‘if this isn’t happiness I don’t know what is’. It’s so difficult to appreciate the moment. Fetishisation of those moments happens afterwards, mythologized for fans and for the sake of reminiscence. The other hot topic of the play, besides straddling a line between artifice and reality, is exploring the gap between admiration and fetishisation. Louise and her coach break into Adler’s and Gibb’s derelict house, where Adler was found rotting weeks after her death, in the hope of adding authenticity to the film. No one has seen Gibb for 10 years. But the narrative for Lou’s film, the retelling of Adler’s life, is rewritten by the fact that Gibb is actually still alive.
‘You die twice’ Lou says, ‘the second time is the last time your name is ever mentioned’. But Adler and Gibb get to live twice, too – once in actually living, and once in being made into a film. Except the characters in Louise’s film will not be Adler and Gibb, they will be Louise and a co-star playing Adler and Gibb (in fact, that co-star ends up being Gibb herself). Lou isn’t just playing Adler. “I will become her” she says, because that is what the millions who watch the film will know. For generations Thatcher will be Meryl Streep, Capote will be Seymour Hoffman, no doubt Seymour Hoffman will be someone else when the biopic of his life is made. However faithful their depiction it is only an impression. Ceci n’est pas Philip Seymour Hoffman etc etc.
The play, structured in its flashy way, insists on its own artificiality. But you can’t stop imagination. Crouch is trying to tell us that everything on stage is made up, is not real, but the point of any character on a stage is to prove its reality, isn’t it?
“Yeah, I’ve got it” I thought smugly about half an hour into Act 1. But it’s four days later and I’m back at square one, still mulling. And I didn’t even say anything about the brilliant performances…