It’s an interesting idea – a play with two performers: the playwright himself and an actor who has never seen the script or play before. Tim Crouch, the creator of An Oak Tree, weaves in a sense of precariousness by thrusting his co-star in at the deep end, playing the part not only of the story’s second protagonist, but also of a selection of participants in a hypnotism show taking place in a pub “about a year from now.”
Every word is scripted, but unrehearsed, with the actor reading from a clipboard or responding to instructions from Crouch.
Underneath all this is a bleak tale of loss – the death of a child, accidentally killed by Crouch’s hypnotist character. In our performance the girl’s father, Andy, was played with remarkable skill and empathy by Neve McIntosh. The premise is that Andy, three months into his bereavement, is consumed by the idea that his daughter is in everything – not gone at all – in the dips in surfaces, but most especially in an oak tree. He sees the poster for Crouch’s hypnotism show and volunteers, hoping for answers.
That in itself is a compelling concept, one I would have like to have seen explored more thoroughly. Often, Crouch’s instructions to Neve were a distraction – especially when he muttered the lines she then had to deliver.
But this technique did aptly mirror the experience of being in the audience of a third-rate hynotism act, right down to the uneasy impression of perhaps being taken for a fool. At times Crouch addressed Neve directly – as in a section where she, following a heartbreaking scene as Andy, begins to weep and Crouch seems to intervene with concern, but jolts the illusion by saying. “Are you okay? Say yes.”
Andy and Neve are clearly both characters, even if Neve has the luxury of stepping off stage and going home afterwards.
Very meta, and certainly immersive in the sense that we, the audience in the theatre, are playing our role as the audience in the pub. By encouraging us to applaud imaginary volunteers, Crouch ensures we feel like participants in the game – if not collaborators.
Suggestibility and collusion are strong themes, as Andy fumbles his way through the treacherous moonscape of grief, grasping at an shred of comfort he can find.
Neve, with her expressive face, was a joy to watch – somehow embodying six-foot-tall Andy and utterly convincing at every turn. I had the sense that she had the best time of anyone through her commitment to Andy and his raw bewilderment, grief and love. In fact, following the performance Neve tweeted “One of the most extraordinary, meaningful & beautifully bonkers stage experiences I’ve ever had!” Understood.
There are moments when the grief shines through so vividly it’s almost unbearable, such as a scene in which Neve as Andy wakes his wife Dawn (Crouch sitting back to back with Neve, and with his back to us) to read her a meditation transcript, and she clearly reaches breaking point, screaming that his loss is less than hers because their daughter only existed in his head anyway – they all exist only in his head. It’s a breathtaking statement, and one flurried with possibilities. For a second I was convinced we were about to discover Andy in a padded cell, mourning a family that had never been real.
When An Oak Tree was first performed ten years ago it was groundbreaking. Today, while still clever, I found myself longing for a simpler, less tangled performance that focused more directly on a father, his pain and the tree he hoped might be his redemption. That, in itself, would be powerful enough.
An Oak Tree is at Bristol Old Vic until 19th September 2015.