Event theatre is a curious phenomenon that is hard to predict and can emerge from a number of paths. Most often it is due to an attachment of a star name that turns a popular play into a must see; the Cumberbatch Hamlet being an extreme examples of this. Sometimes, such as with Jerusalem or Constellations, word-of-mouth and press reviews suddenly turn an unknown new play into the thing people are queuing round the block for. Most gratifyingly is when it assigned to a theatre company on the basis of their hard graft built over many years; Complicite gained this status, and surely Headlong have now joined their ranks. Among those versed in theatre, Headlong are a by-word for theatre that promises endless invention built on energetic staging working in harmony with high class visuals.
People, Places and Things is without doubt pure event theatre – it matches a theatre company that can sell-out a show before it opens with a lead performance that is rightly being described as career-making. You leave the theatre feeling that you have seen a very special production, with an exhilaratingly powerhouse piece of acting from Denise Gough at its heart. It is the highlight of Rufus Norris’ early tenure at the National, and a production that reminds you how truly invigorating theatre can be.
By pure chance I had seen it within days of seeing the devastatingly powerful Song From Far Away at the Young Vic. They work as superb companion pieces, and anyone who sees both cannot help but reflect on what they tell us about the mental outlook and wellbeing of the younger generations in affluent, western societies.
Both cover individuals at the point of crisis, but touch on different ends of the spectrum. In Stephens’ play, Willem is unable to articulate his need for help and his crisis reaches a more acute phase as he exists outside of supportive systems. In Duncan Macmillan’s play, we have Emma (or possibly we do, even her name remains ambiguous), another white, privileged and mainly unsympathetic character.
However, unlike Willem, she is vocal and able to recognise that there is a point where she must ask for help. Yet even at that this stage she uses her facility with language to keep people at a distance; she uses words as a defence mechanism to keep people away from her true self. Her extrovert nature is the polar opposite to Willem’s introvert, but ultimately her personality finds her unable to find ways of expressing herself in order to avert a significant crisis.
Denise Gough’s performance as Emma has drawn deserved plaudits. Her role in Tim Crouch’s Adler & Gibb hinted at her vast potential, and was one of the performances of the year. It was fluid, totally unselfconscious and demonstrated an assured facility for portraying characters on the edge of mania. She brings this and much more to Emma.
There is no way, easy or otherwise, to describe Tim Crouch’s latest play, Adler & Gibb, so that it makes sense to the reader. Despite seeing more than 100 plays over the last three years I cannot recall another production that feels so elusive that I am left suggesting that the only way to understand it is to experience it. As a play it is defiantly high-concept, deliberately infuriating and fully aware of the challenge it makes of its audience. Having roundly trashed Mr Burns for pretty much identical reasons it suddenly becomes apparent how fine the margins between success and failure really are.
Not only is it difficult to describe, it is hard even to talk about it in a way that doesn’t make it sound like the most appallingly self-indulgent piece of pretentious, beard-stroking metropolitan claptrap. If it sounds to readers that I damning Adler & Gibb with this review then I can only echo Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony eulogy and the dubious claim that he comes ‘[… ] to bury Caesar, not to praise him’.
Tim Crouch does not tend to make plays with easy answers. In Adler & Gibb he has made a play without easy questions. Like a magician he lays subtle clues with one hand – a neat reference to the Maine lion that gives a hint to the identity of the actor – whilst at the same time misdirecting with the other – the changing story behind the napkin.
Yet the crucial factor is that despite arriving at the interval with a general sense of befuddlement and feeling close to displeasure at the opaqueness of the first half, Crouch has still built an atmosphere of trust; that this a play worth persisting with. It has an intangible quality that nags away at the back of the mind that you are on cusp of something quite special, and that if does fail then at least it will fail spectacularly.
To start with a description; Adler & Gibb is about a conceptual artist, her relationship with Gibb, their retreat from the world and what happened after. Or Adler & Gibb is about a student looking for scholarship funding through a study of Adler and Gibb. Or Adler & Gibb is about an actor who used to be a student who is making a film about Adler and Gibb. Or Adler & Gibb is about an actor playing Adler who meets Gibb, who tells us the story of Adler and Gibb. Or it is about different mediums of art, the tones they employ and how it affects the narratives they tell and the stories heard by the audience. Or it is about all of this and none of this.
To start at the beginning; the play opens with a presentation from a student about Adler and Gibb. She is eager, passionate and delightfully gauche; instantly recognisable as someone who has been inspired but lacks the articulacy and the knowledge to present her views as we might expect. She tells us the story of Adler and Gibb but through it is digressive, fractured and jarringly myopic.