Tuesday 1 July 2014

Adler and Gibb – Royal Court

[seen 30/06/14 – a good fortnight after press night. Many, many spoilers.]

Photo by Johan Persson – Photoshopped by me because impressionism

Imagine maybe “The Making of the biopic of ‘Marina Abramovic as half of gender-swapped Gilbert and George’s Hamlet’.” It’s tempting to suggest that Adler and Gibb does for film what The Author did for theatre – which is to say, pursue it relentlessly, teeth bared and eventually sunk deep into its flesh.

[intermission: Much though I tried to avoid reading anything about Tim Crouch’ new play, it was impossible to avoid the general groundswell of opinion, even the general consensus about the trajectory of the piece’s arc, at least amongst my peers (I still haven’t read any of the MSM reviews).]

Crouch’s new play is a real surprise. Perhaps much of my personal surprise came from watching ir through the filter of friends’ thoughts, though. There seems to be a general feeling, looking through other reviews (particularly Trueman and Gillinson), that the first half is in some way “difficult”. That this is a piece which taxes and frustrates leading toward a revelatory pay-off. That is totally not how I experienced it at all, and so was quite wrong-footed thinking that’s how I should have been watching it.

Adler and Gibb is a play about a failed artist who, rejected by the art establishment, remakes herself, marries film executive power and money, and re-pursues the dead heroine of her teenage years, not as a disciple but with the resources to re-approapriate, almost *become* her, via the medium of the biopic, funded by her aged film executive husband. To this end, she (her name’s Lou) and her acting coach Sam, which whom she’s having a half-hearted fling, go on a road-trip to find the house where Adler died and where Gibb is also presumed dead.

The student incarnation of Lou provides context throughout in the form of a lecture delivered from a dug out at the front of the stage replete with lectern and mic. She details the works which have made Adler and Gibb famous (and now hugely profitable) artists, while on the stage – the “making of the biopic of” almost-road-movie sections gradually take shape. Starting with Gough and Ferguson standing, stripped down in white underwear, as Trueman notes – initially we wonder if they *are* Adler and Gibb (both female, but with a bit of gender-blind casting). But gradually, they are dressed. The stage is more-or-less empty at the start, save for a couple of rehearsal room tables at which a stage manager and a couple of children wearing headphones are sat. The pair are dressed *by the children*, who seem to function as unhearing ASMs, as well as standing in for at one point a dog, and at another point a corpse. The children add a fascinating texture to this tension between naturalism and non-naturalism. And obviously they recall that famous old stage adage about never working with children or animals. Shortly before the interval (here playing “an intermission” – the play is set in America) an adorable Schnauzer is trotted onto the stage. The Schanuzer is playing a mongrel dog which Adler and Gibb propose to sell to the Whitney museum of art’s permanent collection.

There is much that is completely fascinating about this piece. And I don’t mind admitting I was initially pretty foxed about what it might have been saying (indeed, I’m still not totally sure. I like Trueman’s analysis and conclusions – “” – very much, but I’m not sure I either fully buy them, or, rather, they weren’t how I felt).

The second half of the piece continues the accretion of elements tending slowly toward naturalism, here the assumed default position of Oscar-winning, glamorous, Hollywood cinema. And one of the final moments before the two successive “final pay-offs” is the creation of a filmed (and projected-live) kiss between Louise, in costume and character as Janet Adler and the still-living-as-it-turned-out Margaret Gibb.

In a way, this trajectory felt like an interesting, slightly snarky interrogation by the *really *Live* theatre* faction – of the first half, of Crouch’s other, very direct-address-y, talk-to-the-audience-y, work, and perhaps the fourth wall and now-with-added-cinema naturalism of artists like Katie Mitchell. There’s a nice and neat irony that Adler and Gibb’s designer, Lizzie Clachan, also created the *exact replica* of the inside of Peter Handke’s mother’s house for Wunschloses unglück (which at the very, very least suggests that if this is a serious ideological fight, then there some very serious artists – in this case Clachan – who prove that it’s possible to be on both sides at the same time).

The first of the pay-offs that follows this sees a massive screen descend in front of the raised stage area. It completely cuts off the stage. Onto it is projected a film of many of the things, locations, items, which have been mentioned in the foregoing stage action. Interestingly, it kicks off with the young deer (previously “played” or stood-in-for) by one of the child ASMs. That deer was watching Louise and Sam have sex (Gough and Ferguson stood, both facing front, deadpanning their way through that “sex scene”). This deer stares at us, the audience, and irresistibly recalls that mad fox in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist.

Indeed, in this film section, the use of low, rumbly, ominous sound, pitched the atmosphere halfway between Antichrist, something Lynch-y, and Gisele Vienne’s This is How You Will Disappear. You do expect something nasty and bloody to suddenly leap out at you. It doesn’t.

The final focus-pull is Louise’s Oscar acceptance speech.

As such, for a piece of “avant garde” or experimental theatre, I reckon this has one of the most “proper” and complete storylines, I’ve ever seen. There’s a lot of nice stuff in there which complicates it, but ultimately it felt really weirdly a bit like watching something like The Fountainhead. Now, whether it was intended as endorsement or critique is a different question – and knowing Crouch, I imagine it would be critique. But the fact remains, this is a narrative arc that charts the ruthless rise of a failed artist to what by most estimations would be a pinnacle of success.

The spectre of Nazism is first raised by the fact that the fictional artist, Adler, was born in Buchenwald concentration camp in 1943. That her would be biographer/cipher’s own rise contains more than slight echoes of Hitler’s “story-arc” (failed artist reinvents self as a power-crazed maniac), is a neat irony indeed.

But the idea of totalitarianism seeps through in other areas too. Adler and Gibb’s farewell-to-the-art-world statement was “Shoot the wounded, save yourselves.” Pure fascism/”objectivism”. Elsewere, though A&G’s art does sound excellent, shades of the Chapman Brothers’ “Insult to injury” in a piece in which Adler buys and eats a famous portrait of a critic, echoes of a million canvas slashings (Bacon, others) in their choice to “dematerialise” their work (*such* a clever choice of word).

In terms of production and performance (oh, yes; this isn’t just a folio of ideas, it actually happens as a live event before your very eyes): blimey and bloody hell, frankly. This has got to be some of the most intricate, complex performing-cum-acting currently on the London stage. Denise Gough, for example, starts off in completely her own accent (Irish), neutral, and “not acting”, and gradually transitions to a total “embodiment” of Louise, the – by that point – blowsy, coked-up, American actress playing a morbid Hamlet graveyard scene to Janet Adler’s recently exhumed skull. Perhaps the best “Yorick scene” I’ve seen since Mark Rylance’s at the Globe in 2000, BTW. Gough is electrifyingly rageful and contemptuous in the face of this death. And when “Louise” *does* Adler’s voice – New York, but with that slight inflection of German that we’re told she never lost – it gives you the shivers. Properly. It’s like she really is doing an impression of the dead lover of this woman (Gibb, played by Amelda Brown), and a properly perfect impression at that. The fact by that point the layers of meta-/reality are about four or five deep *at least* is temporarily suspended. Brian Ferguson – last seen by me in Unlimited’s Money: The Gameshow (Of course! That was bugging me all last night. Of course the last woman he played opposite I saw was the equally sublime Lucy Ellinson. Now I get a bit more why he and Gough looked so familiar as a pairing...) – while given a slightly less eventful meta- ride, is still remarkable. And, at the end, he gets, perhaps *the* speech of the play. Halfway between his blood-poisoned, dying Sam and an atavistic echo of the dying Adler, he makes a speech about acting that feels steeped in the same tragedy of fascism an individualism as Adler’s earlier statement, here transforming (arguably, this might be me over-reading) simple instructions about acting into a Rand- or Hitler-like mantra about the will to power, basically. Dangerous concepts like “truth” and “authenticty” and “overcoming” fly through the air, while Ferguson spits, eyes blazing, like a very badly wounded animal.

Overall, well, I think I’m in a much better place in terms of comprehension now, 20 hours after I saw it, than I was immediately afterwards. And I rather suspect that comprehension is going to grow rather than diminish. I expect I’ll re-read the script. I suspect I’ll think about both the production and the text a lot more in days and weeks to come. I think this is a piece that resists immediacy (or I unwittingly resisted its possible immediate effects), and it’s less like an adrenaline shot than a gradual drip of slow-release something-or-others that gets under the skin, into the mind, and that you need to think back to to activate the thing fully. Maybe. I dunno. It feels like my colleagues got a real shot in the arm from it, and I got the month-long course of pills version. No bad thing at all, although I’m fascinated by what reads like the disparity. Still, this is unarguably fascinating, intelligent theatre. And the fact that it’s just there, on the main stage at the Royal Court, at the same time that Mr Burns plays the Almeida – well, it feels like London (a couple of months down the line from British Theatre Week Zero in April) is still totally on a roll. Like in several corners, a culture-war has been won, and we’re getting to bask in the spoils of victory.

[edit: I think I got through this whole review without mentioning that the piece was directed by Tim Crouch with Karl James and Andy Smith, which is an oversight as spectacular as it is unusual]

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