Wednesday 7 October 2009

The Author - Royal Court

[sorry it's late. Still needs a bit of an edit, but here goes...]

Forgive the preamble. The Author is one of those pieces of theatre that really forces the critic to think about the purpose of their review. Put simply, I went in with very little information about the form or content of The Author. That seemed pretty much the perfect way of experiencing it. The Author is definitely worth seeing. Go and see it. Don’t read any more until you have seen it.

But then there’s the people who won’t get to see it. And the people who have seen it and want to read about it. There’s a sense that one should write both a spoiler-free review and then one in which the contents of the play and what (and how) they mean are discussed. Because of the way in which The Author is constructed, discussing what it says in anything beyond generalities will alter the way in which a person experiences it saying them.

Ok, so we can’t make theatre in a void. As Ian Shuttleworth discusses in a recent Theatre Record editorial, normal critics just need to make a judgement call, and hope it doesn’t upset the apple cart too much. Given the option, it feels like it would be good if there was also space for more in-depth reviews which don’t have to strain not to let the cat out of the bag and consequently can discuss what’s in the play and what that means.

So, again, if you’re going to see The Author, you’ll have a different experience of it if you carry on reading now.

One of the most fascinating things about The Author is precisely this sort of choice. The idea of choice is also central to the way in which it operates. When you enter the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs to take your seat (unallocated: again, choices), you look at the two banks of seating arranged in traverse, and then you notice that there’s no space between them. There is either no stage or it is all stage. What we’ll be watching is each other. Even just as an arrangement it feels uncanny. Because we’ve been here before we know the seats and seeing them just facing each other, implacable, is somehow oddly disconcerting. It’s funny, of course, but also a little unsettling. There’s something about the proximity of the two front rows, as well. Perhaps even a little too close together.

After a deliberately long period of pre-show seatedness, performer Adrian Howells, sat with us in the audience, starts to talk loudly to the (in this case) woman next to him. He is playing an audience member called Adrian. Good natured banter about how much he loves the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs ensues. At this point, depending on how much attention you paid to the programme or posters, you might or might not know how many other people in the audience are also performers. If you know what Tim Crouch, the author of The Author looks like, and know he is also in The Author, you might spend time amusing yourself watching the author instead of watching The Author.

After a while, Adrian stops talking. There is a pause. A very long silence, in fact. The “house lights” go down so that we, the audience, are the only thing that’s lit. Music plays.

The cessation of performance, the change of lighting to focus our attention on, well, on the performance area, which is also where we are sitting, means that we have our attention drawn – as audience members – to one another. Most people in the audience have come as couples, and so turn to each other and talk quietly. There’s a pleasant if bemused atmosphere. What was interesting to me was that while the piece was playing a game with expectation, revelling in its liveness, in the fact that anyone in the audience could do anything, there was also a printed script in the programme. At any stage, one could open it up to find out what’s going to happen next. Of course, in theory, this is an option for any play at the Court. But normally one’s sat in darkness. You’d have to squint. It’d feel rude to the actors to look at the script instead of watching them. One is normally coaxed into the suspension of disbelief.

Here, there’s a very interesting game being played with suspension of disbelief – with what’s “real”. Tim Crouch really is real. He really is the author of The Author. He is also the next person to speak. He talks about being led to a flotation tank by an attractive young woman. His description of her goes slightly too far. He asks us if it’s ok for him to continue. We’re always in The Royal Court Theatre Upstairs with him, but he’s talking about being somewhere else. We’re not sure that “real” Tim Crouch would think like this about a young woman leading him to a flotation tank. So, oddly, it becomes fine for him to continue. Because we’re reassured that he’s acting. Or performing. The person he says he is (who he actually is), isn’t “him”. At least we hope not.

Gradually two more performers are revealed and begin to talk to us about their experiences relating to a play they’d been in (or, in Adrian’s case, seen) written by Tim Crouch, and performed in the Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court. Tim is also talking to us about this play that he wrote and directed. The play of which he was The Author. This play that it’s claimed Tim wrote – if you know his back catalogue, or the recent production history of the Theatre Upstairs, then you’ll know it’s a made-up play – is a pointedly satirical conflation of several Royal Court Upstairs shows. It’s about father-daughter sexual abuse. Adrian talks about how many dead babies he’s seen in the Theatre Upstairs.

Tim and the actors talk about the (unnamed) play (“The title of the play referred to the girl in it, I suppose. It was her face on the poster, in the brochure – looking dreadful!!” – Adrian). About the subject: war, sexual abuse, violence; about their rehearsal process; about how they watched videos of soldiers raping women; about how they watched videos of beheadings; about how they visited the country where the play was set and met people they thought were like the characters in the play; about how they copied these people’s physicality; about how Esther was “lucky enough” to meet a 17-year-old girl who had been raped by her father – “Just like her character”.

Tim talks about how the play was “a poem, really”, he talks about how the violence in the play is a metaphor, but also an examination of precisely the sort of violence that exists in the world. How what they presented on stage was nothing compared to some of the things they’d seen in their research.

Even knowing that the play they were talking about is fictional, you know that the genre absolutely isn’t. You can think of the countless examples. Your mind returns again and again to Blasted, to the ultraviolence of “In-Yer-Face” theatre. You remember reading all those arguments about how the writers were exploring society’s violence in their plays in Aleks Sierz’s In-Yer-Face Theatre. If you were there the night I was there, you can watch Aleks spotting the references and smiling. You can recognise the absolutely real descriptions of research trips abroad, of actors researching their parts, of writers researching their plays, of actors talking to people who have suffered; and you can recognise yourself as an audience member watching these shows.

While doing no research beyond the theatre, The Author manages to talk eloquently about violence in the real world and the difficulty of making art about it. About the ethical questions that making art that examines violence raises. About the ethics of watching, consuming, art about violence. It actually takes a pretty stern, unequivocal, ethical stance. It finds it wrong. It makes us deeply uncomfortable that an actor and a writer will *interrogate* a rape victim in the service of their art. There’s an interesting performance style at play here. The way Crouch talks often sounds more like liturgy than in-the-moment psychological realism. On the other hand, the “scene” in which he and the actor Vic “interrogate” “Karen” his chilling precisely because of the cold aggression being pretended behind Crouch’s eyes.

Given the final two events which the narrative of The Author describes, it would be easy to conclude that Crouch’s point is that if reasonable, concerned, “nice” people spend enough time looking into violence, researching violence and sexual violence, looking at it, it will eventually make them psychotic. I think Crouch is actually more interested in making us think about the ethical implications of this sort of research-based “poetry” than simply slamming it. In a way, the play even questions the ideas of “authenticity”, and appears to make an interesting case against them. As such it constitutes a real line-in-the-sand moment for theatre. Of course real companies and practitioners will point out that they would be, are, more careful than these fictional counterparts; but Crouch’s challenge still stands. Is “behaving well” enough? I’m not sure I feel as unequivocal on the point as Crouch does, but having seen the play, it’s a position that suddenly feels much harder to justify.

That the Royal Court has commissioned and housed this J’Accuse against itself adds a fascinating extra dimension. It’s worth noting in passing that the script insists “T]he Author is set in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre – even when it’s performed elsewhere.” Then, later “The names of the characters in this text are the names of the actors playing them for the Royal Court premiere. If the actors change, the character names change accordingly, with the exception of the author, whose character’s name should always be Tim Crouch” and then at the bottom “The printed text may differ slightly from the play as performed.” It feels as if these elements are almost strangely contradictory, although I would be fascinated to see the piece performed by a wholly new cast in a totally different building, but can’t help feeling that although the play itself is very strong, the immediate and obvious resonances of its site-specificity would be lost. It would also be interesting to see what the effect of having “Adrian”’s part played by an actual audience member fitted with an earpiece, รก la An Oak Tree.

To conclude, this is a rich, densely allusive and morally urgent piece of theatre and essential viewing for theatregoers. Moreover, it is a piece that deserves and rewards being discussed and thought about. It is not just a play; in the most real sense possible, it is the start of a conversation.

[Edit: re: the direction - see below. Tim says it better than I ever will]


Karl James - The Dialogue Project said...

A great read. Thank you.

Andrew Haydon said...

That means a lot. Thank you.

timcrouch said...

This is a wonderful response, Andrew. Thank you.

The Author was directed by two very important people in my work (and life) - Andy Smith (a smith) and Karl James. From the outside, it may look like they had little work to do in The Author - the actors sit down throughout! But their input into the detail, texture, tone, lightness, confidence, delivery, etc was absolutely invaluable. For me as a writer, they helped me to understand what I'd written - through gentle and uncompromising interrogation of the material. For me as an actor, they helped me to find a language with which to understand the play in performance. Through the most warm and brilliant conversations we established rules and tools to enable and our embolden our relationship with the audience and to allow the story to be told.

Andy and Karl have been with the play since before it was written. They have heard me talk in such tentative tones about it and they have given me nothing but confidence. They have worked so hard at bringing our team into the Royal Court without hitch or hindrance. They have generated an atmosphere of honesty and generosity and love within which we have all been able to to our best work. They have done amazing things with the company of actors. The play was written with Adrian Howells and Vic Llewellyn in mind - but our casting of Esther Smith back in February was a testament to a humane rigour around everything they have done. We are a company like no other I have ever worked in. And I hope that that quality communicates - invisibly - in performance. In a play about abuse, it would have been a crime to work in an abusive way. Andy and Karl have not imposed a 'vision'; they have not kept secrets or ruled through division. They have honoured us, respected us, enabled us, enlightened us, cared for us, loved us, liberated us. They have made us feel like artists and they have helped us understand our work in relation to its audience. This is perhaps the very best a director can ever do.

They are not hungry for recognition. Nor are they ambitious to be career directors. They have their own practices - which they gladly put on hold to work with me. They are thrilled by the good reviews whether they get a mention in them or not. I am inordinately lucky to have two men of such modesty, intelligence and talent to work alongside. And I suppose I want that to be known and recognised. I thought I should write a little bit about them here - because you are one of the few theatre thinkers out there who would understand. As your last sentence says - the conversation is ongoing.


a smith said...

Thanks Tim,
And many thanks from me too, Andrew. It's great to read such a rich and generous response to our work.
To ongoing conversation,

Andrew Field said...

For me, there was another resonance to the ending that isn't really touched upon.

It's late and I'm not sure that I can articulate it here but it's something to do with how our desire for (or reliance on) the linearity of a narrative, of knowing what is going to happen next is made problematic, even deeply disturbing, by the inevitability of the violence in these pieces.

We like to know what's going to happen next. We are eager for it. We feed off it. When Tim asks us near the start if it is ok if he goes on I didn't just say yes because I had assumed the essentially constructed nature of the character of 'The Author' that Tim was at that point embodying. It was also because I wanted to know what was going to happen next.

That moment - that question of whether we should go on. That was a warning, or a provocation, or a rehearsal.

Then we are led into a hall of mirrors where representation kind of collapses in on itself, as you say. We're watching a play set in the place where we are watching that play and it is about a play performed in that same theatre where we are watching the play again. Events in that play bleed out into real life. Violence begets violence. But also the violence that is implicit in that particular theatre and its history is reflected in what we are now seeing.

It's confusing. Deliberately so. But to me the suggestion was that theatre does not exist in a comfortable Other space where things like violence and horror can be represented without consequence. Theatre is part of the real world and when you represent that kind of violence within mimetic narrative theatre, you construct a means by which the unimaginable horror of those acts can be understood. Swallowed.

Which brings us back to Adrian's titillation and our greedy desire to know what's going to happen next.

We know that Tim is inventing something horrible. He is putting new images into the world. He is making horrible things happen. We could ask him to stop. The lights even go out - only a few people would know it was us. Or we could walk out. But we don't because we want to know what happens next.

And our horror at what he is describing is always compromised by the pleasure of following that narrative thread. The pleasure and the horror become part of the same thing.

And that narrative pleasure I think begins to structure the way we view real horror. In the media, in our own heads, we represent it. We make it comprehensible through imposing structure upon it and we want to find out what happens next. It drives us not only into normalising the atrocious but into (potentially) willing it on in order to find out what will happen. We don't try (or even hope) for its end.

And like Tim says at the end, no one may get hurt by our actions, but we are contributing to a world in which our attitudes to horror and violence are normalised. Made all too appetizingly swallowable. A tragedy has barely begun before someone has suggested with relish what a good film it will make.

In that sense I think the piece that it reminds me of most is Ridiculusmus' brilliant Tough Time, Nice Time.

It equally involved a whole lot of talking and very little doing, equally involved a lot of description of fictions and atrocities, it equally had you laughing and grimacing. And it left me equally disturbed as to what it does to be drenched in so much second-hand violence.

With The Author though I did feel the real punch-in-the-gut accusation, sitting in that moment of darkness. How far would that scene have needed to go for me to have said anything? It's not a nice thought.