I am not fond of plays that come with instructions but I feel I should issue one for Adler and Gibb, the new play by Tim Crouch currently staged at the Royal Court: for a significant part of the first half you will be thinking “I don’t know what the fuck is going on”. Persevere. Not only will it start to make sense, but some of the confusion will lent an anarchic – if not chaotic – bent to the whole thing.
The background of the story is summarised beautifully at the Royal Court website: “Janet Adler and Margaret Gibb were conceptual artists working in New York at the end of the last century. They were described by art critic Dave Hickey as the ‘most ferociously uncompromising voice of their generation’. With Adler’s death in 2004, however, the compromise began.” Tim Crouch tells some of this story and another one and another one. In fact he keeps telling the story long after the performance has finished. His playfulness and inventiveness fuels the experience.
One of the best things about the play is it communicates ambivalence about its existence the same way Adler and Gibb felt uncertain about their work and the value of art in general**. In that sense, the play is successful and profoundly faithful to its subject. It’s tricky to be engaging while being uncertain about your own worth (after all, why should the audience care if the play is uncertain about itself?). But Tim Crouch pulls it off. Which is the point for me: art is not different to life. It exists independently from the value we assign to it, or what the artist thinks of it. It can be good or bad, but it doesn’t need to justify itself no more than life does.
The convoluted beginning is still an issue of contention for me: is it too long? is it necessary? what pleasures was I missing while trying to piece together the puzzle? Even so, certain elements were a joy: two small children stage-manage the whole thing, props are handed fifteen minutes out of synch or are completely irrelevant (on a home invasion, a man and a woman confront each other and end up holding a lobster each). This randomness is not a result of confusion or any attempt for slapstick comedy. In storytelling, one thing works as well as another, the brain puts it together in the end.
The second half is more character driven, with a sly eye for the ridiculousness of human motives (not to mention one of the best Hamlet riffs you will ever see). Denise Gough is magnificent as a woman who strays further and further from her true self, to the point that she disconnects from recognisable human reactions. Brian Ferguson lives the horror and absurdity of someone who firmly keeps a foot in two worlds, and the panic when these two worlds move further and further apart. Rachel Redford as the student captures the clear-eyed confusion that teenagers have, a gift and a trap all rolled into one. Amelda Brown has probably the most difficult task, a sphinx-like role where the line between life and death is thin. Yet she is still engaging throughout.
The set is bare, but not exactly minimal: it gets assembled during performance, often to reveal a different reality. It amused me we could still see the fire escape at the back of the stage that leads to the street, the same way we could see it in Birdland. Unfortunately, unlike Birdland, no one used it during performance.
I found the play’s in-built mischief irresistible. The subject matter and approach could have been alienating, but it’s not. It’s inquisitiveness and a sense of adventure that keep the play afloat, even if, at times, it feels touch and go.
So we come to the end. Or are we? There is one more thing to do, and I urge you to read more about Adler and Gibb, the artists, but only – and I can’t stress this enough – after you have seen the production. www.adlerandgibb.com
(SMALL) SPOILER ALERT: The interval is integrated into the play and comes with playtext instructions (I won’t even attempt to determine whether the instructions are tongue-in-cheek). But I did wonder whether the actors playing with the dog during the interval – yes there is a puppy on stage by that point – were directed to do so. Is it one unbroken performance from beginning to end? Does that even make sense in the context of any production? Maybe the performance continues during the interval in all theatre but it’s a part we miss.
**(BIG) SPOILER ALERT: This review colludes with certain aspects of the play. To say more would spoil it. The following section contains more info, you can highlight the text and read but ONLY if you have seen the production. So Adler and Gibb don’t exist, neither does the art. This isn’t a mere trick of the playwright. He created such a vivid world for them that their actual existence becomes irrelevant. Take an ancient manuscript: if we only have the reaction to the art, does it matter if the actual artefact ever existed? I often think we should get together and write reviews for a production that doesn’t exist. I reckon that after enough time has passed, this will be as meaningful – or not, for that matter – as anything else we write.