To describe Tim Crouch‘s An Oak Tree as ‘hypnotic’ might seem to be stating the obvious; it is, after all, a show about a stage hypnotist. Except that it’s not.
That’s the story, but the plot is merely a framework for what really makes this piece unique; the innovation of involving an actor who has never seen the script (played, in this instance, by Akiya Henry). This creates a rather unique dynamic – the second actor is also an audience member, witnessing the story play out for the first time, and the audience, ascribed the role of patrons in a local pub, also become part of the exercise. Coupled with the fact that Crouch himself encompasses the roles of actor, writer, and on-stage director, one is struck by the curious feeling that one is seeing a three dimensional object from all sides at once.
Despite its exotic premise, the piece escapes accusations of pretentiousness through Crouch’s inclusive acting style. The audience feels relaxed and welcomed by this humble man presenting his idea, and modestly inviting the audience to share in it. This sensation is further engendered by the sense of fellow feeling we experience with the second actor, who’s shared glances of mock worry as Crouch reiterates her novel task endears us, and makes us feel even more complicit in the unfolding events. The play is often endearingly self-referential in this way, commenting upon its own conceit, debating its merits and potential short-comings, and playing off the fact that this apparently rigorous interrogation of Crouch’s vision is being conducted by an agent brazenly reading from a script written by Crouch himself.
Sounds confusing? It is a little, sometimes. The rapid shifts between semi-naturalism, on-stage direction, and occasional absurdist dance breaks sometimes make it hard to follow what purpose this multitude of devices serves in the theatrical experiment. The role of the second actor in particular becomes slightly ambiguous; while Henry initially playes the self-referential comedy beautifully, the dramatic nature of the unfolding story leads her to creep towards a more naturalistic style, excellent in itself, but slightly at odds both with Crouch’s more demonstrative pseudo-naturalism. This is in no way a criticism of Henry’s performance – she is charming, quick-witted, enthusiastic; everything she should be. Nor am I finding fault with Crouch’s acting ability, who’s work is perfectly pitched to suit the subject material. It is simply that the nature of the piece cultivates inherent potential for crossed wires, an intermittent sense that I am watching an unfinished rehearsal, rather than the intelligent and imaginative piece that it really is.
These instances are few and far between, however, and are most probably unique to the individual performance. Besides, I would much rather come and see an exciting new idea performed with occasional teething problems than a perfectly executed example of something I’ve seen a hundred times before. Crouch’s play is original, thought-provoking, and, despite its enigmatic design, generally very accessible; a fascinating piece of theatre.
Review written by James Kane.
An Oak Tree is currently showing at the Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 19th September. For more information on the production, visit here…