Tim Crouch, Adrian Howells, Vic Llewellyn, Esther Smith
Karl James and a smith
It is often tempting, when in the theatre, to end up watching the audience as well as the performers: at the start of the evening when the lights are still up, say, or maybe in the interval, or even sometimes during the play itself.
They are, after all, part of the experience. Their sounds, their movements, their comments, their behaviour: it is impossible to block all that out, nor is it entirely desirable. They are sharing the moment with you.
The communal aspect of the live performance is one of its joys.
In Tim Crouchs new play it is impossible not to watch the audience. The audience is the play; the play is the audience. Crouch likes to experiment with the idea of what theatre is and what it can be. His previous play, England, was written to be performed in an art gallery. His latest has been written to be performed in a theatre; but more specifically it has been written to be performed in the Royal Courts upstairs space. Both plays invite their audiences to look and to see things perhaps in a new way; both plays ask questions of their audience. The Author asks its audience permission to be: Is it OK? Shall I continue? (Or at least it gives the impression of asking, the question is never tested. No one says no).
The audience sit in two banks of seats that are facing each other. While the lights are still up someone begins talking, quietly at first, to those around him. Then he starts to address the entire room. He talks about his theatre-going habits and the pleasure he takes in going to the theatre, particularly to the Royal Court with all its bummings and bombings. He is one of us and yet he is not. The audience member is joined by other speakers, by the author, Tim Crouch (played by Tim Crouch), and by two actors, Vic and Esther who have starred in one of his plays.
The Author is like a series of sheets being pulled away, but being slowly, almost imperceptibly, withdrawn rather than simply whipped aside. At a certain point the audience begins to be aware that the play has ceased to be a dissection of the theatre-going experience and has become something else. It has become an exploration of how extreme and disturbing material can infiltrate the minds and lives of those who come in contact with it. It explores how the act of writing and staging something, of appropriating the stories of others, can infect people. The play that Crouch and the two actors describe is about conflict and abuse in an unnamed country, and it has left a residue.
Every so often the voices are interrupted and jaunty music will play, sitcom themes. During these moments its fascinating to see how quickly people reset themselves to this new situation and break out of the audience/performer relationship of silent observation. The audience start to chat among themselves and the music is accompanied by the building murmur of conversations. When the voices begin speaking again it is also fascinating to observe how people react to having the performers sitting amongst them. Some people attempt to follow the sound, their heads twisting around to spot the speaker, while others will stare forwards, content to the just listen.
This element of – for want of a better term – interactivity, this breaking down of barriers, creates moments of humour and unease. When the curious theatre-goer (played by Adrian Howells) asks another audience member what he does for a living, the man answers playwright, a response which draws a large laugh. Later one woman seems far more interested in the box of Malteasers that is being offered around than in any exercise in theatrical experimentation and Howells is forced to politely but firmly ignore her in order to continue.
When another woman walks out in the early stages of the play, it raises the question of whether this is a planned part of the production or whether she has simply started to find all this heavily meta banter a bit tiresome. Her departure also sets a precedent: it establishes that, even in this particularly intimate atmosphere, walking out is permissible: it is an escape route one could take if one wished. But no one else did. The audience stayed in their seats for Crouchs sometimes playful, sometimes daring and, yes, even sometimes tiresomely postmodern and self-referential experiment.