Hereís one of the most interesting exercises in the psychology of theatre I have ever seen. Tim Crouch plays a struggling hypnotist who has killed a 12-year-old girl in a road accident. Each night, a professional actor who has neither seen the show nor read the script plays the dead girlís father who volunteers to take part in the hypnotistís act.
Crouch introduced an oak tree to acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival two years ago. It has since been given Off-Broadway where it became a kind of po-faced version of The Play What I Wrote with guest appearances by F Murray Abraham, Laurie Anderson, Mike Myers, David Hyde Pierce and Jim Dale. On the British tour, the second actor has been played by Kathy Keira Clark, Hayley Carmichael, James Wilby, Christopher Eccleston and Roger Lloyd Pack. Címon, TimÖwhat about Biggins, or Bonnie Langford?
The night I went in Soho, I got lucky: the second actor was Ruth Sheen, that wonderfully warm, gawkily beautiful stalwart of several Mike Leigh films (notably High Hopes) and most recently Market Boy at the National. She submitted with charm and open sensitivity and was gradually drawn into the tale of woe and expression of grief, even a nasty attack of incontinence.
But I donít think the piece achieves what it aims for. The title refers to an art work by Michael Craig Martin, a glass of water on a shelf which the artist invites us to see as an oak tree. The bereaved father goes to the scene of the accident and hugs a tree by the road. He charges the tree with his daughter, ie he injects the spirit of the girl and releases her to its care.
I may be guessing here, but the narrative is not all that clear. More fascinating is the method of coaxing the actor into the story. Crouch Ė who annoyingly resembles a mildly satanic cross-breed of playwright Mark Ravenhill and A A Gill Ė prompts Sheen with whispers, pages of script, out-loud cues, microphoned but inaudible (to us) instructions and quick demonstrations. Itís a beguiling display of directing and auto-suggestion and illustrates perfectly the transference of power from idea to expression to communication.
It remains, however, more of a technical exercise than a genuine exploration of bereavement. Crouch is without doubt a master magician of some sort, although on this evidence heís a little too anxious to please, too ingratiating for his appeal to be unsullied with preciousness. The last section of the show, when the tables are turned and Ruth Sheen took the microphone is by far the weakest.
And you leave the theatre wondering what the actress herself would have to say about the experience of playing a 46-year-old, six-foot tall father with a bloodshot eye and no idea what to say next. It must be even more strange and nerve-wracking an ordeal than any extended improvisation session on a Mike Leigh film.
- Michael Coveney