Edinburgh Fringe 2015
There’s no need to cut into this tree to see how old it is: this is the tenth anniversary production of Tim Crouch’s ‘An Oak Tree’, which first found its roots at the Traverse Theatre back in 2005. It’s a two-hander in which half the cast has never been to a rehearsal, or even a read-through. It’s also one of the most moving experiences you’ll have at the Fringe.
Some of you will have had the actor’s recurring anxiety dream – you know, the one where you find yourself on a brightly lit stage in front of an expectant audience on performance night never having attended a single rehearsal. In actor Tim Crouch’s anniversary production of his own piece, this nightmare becomes a fascinating reality for an invited guest.
‘I’m just the hypnotist,’ one of Tim Crouch’s characters declares at one point. ‘You’re the star.’ This is pretty much a metaphor for the show itself. For each new performance of An Oak Tree, a new actor is invited to play the second role. In actual fact, the second performer may not always be primarily known as an actor, but sometimes as a director or possibly writer. It’s certainly true that there have been some very well-known names performing against Crouch over the last decade, and may well be again, depending on what performance you see. There is an implied contract that Crouch makes with the audience, in that he tells us that today’s volunteer will not have seen the play before, or even have read a copy of the script. There is much effort to say that the volunteer is always in a safe place, that they won’t be embarrassed, and that they can quit the show any time they want to. Since those claims (and the volunteer’s responses) are all tightly scripted, one suspects that such reassurances of safety are for the audience’s benefit more than the volunteer’s. In the opening scenes of the piece, Crouch delivers his lines pretty deadpan, so that it sounds like he’s the one ‘reading cold’. This is just a moment’s artifice that gives the guest (and us, the audience) enough time to get used to the concept.
So what follows is not a rehearsed play, and it’s not exactly improvisation, but there is real electricity in watching the interaction between Crouch and his guest. It’s become somewhat standard to declare that the magic of theatre is that no two performances will ever be the same, but in the case of An Oak Tree, that is literally the case. Crouch will often pull back the curtain to reveal the machinery of his own work: it’s clear when his manipulating his guest to a certain response, but what is even more compelling when we watch the guest surprised by their own , unbidden responses – reading dialogue for the very first time, their emotions will creep up on them and overtake them, sometimes clobbering them so they need to take a moment before they continue. Sounds – like the uncertain clunky hammering of piano keys – attain a strange beauty, as does the sound of passing traffic which has the soothing grace of waves on a shoreline.
At one point, Tim Crouch’s hypnotist convinces another character – played by the guest – that they are naked. And it’s true that the guest, almost inevitably, gives a raw, unvarnished performance as they learn (and deliver) information for the very first time. This, somewhat obviously, is the main draw of An Oak Tree as it branches further into its themes of loss and grief. Crouch is such an engaging and warm companion to his guest that it becomes irresistible to feel safe in his company. So much so that when what’s happening on stage is so fragile, so unpredictable, it’s genuinely impossible to detect what has been wrangled by Crouch, and what is potentially out of his control. What is well within the light and shade of his tree is 85 minutes of majestic storytelling.