“You’ve confused the story
And so once again, theatres lead where critics are not inclined to follow… After the divisiveness of the extraordinary Mr Burns at the Almeida, the Royal Court now turns its hand to something a little different in the form of Tim Crouch’s Adler & Gibb. A(nother) distinctly lukewarm reception from the print critics is hardly surprising but it does feel a shame that there isn’t more of a groundswell of support for the diversity of programming we’re so lucky to have here in London. In a West End where Coward revivals are two a penny and there are actually two Importance of Being Earnests queued up to go into theatres, I for one am grateful that these opportunities are being presented to me.
A New Jersey art student Louise gives a presentation about Janet Adler, a conceptual artist who retreated from the world with her partner Margaret Gibb and died a mysterious death. Onstage, an older woman is researching and rehearsing a role for a biopic film with a colleague before a location shoot. Around them, two children in headphones are stage-managing the show, incrementally increasing our understanding about just what it is that we’re watching.
The critical response has proved most illuminating about the way theatre that defies convention (for want of a better term) is received here – Shenton tweeted semi-obliquely and then harrumphed about his bafflement; Cavendish castigated Royal Court AD Vicky Featherstone for not responding to the crises in Iraq and Ukraine (both of which started earlier this year, whilst this play was announced in November 2013 and was presumably programmed well before then…), Billington havered on the same 3 star rating that he gave Mr Burns but at least he engaged somewhat with what Crouch is trying to do rather than just expressing personal displeasure.
We’re witness to the live construction of character and story that is highly imaginatively done. Louise’s presentation is interspersed with a slideshow which is in fact the preparation for a film about Adler, snippets of information from the student suddenly make sense as the strands feed into each other, slowly coalescing into a grand whole as we discover who the actress is and just how far she is willing to go in order to truly become Adler, become her character.
It’s not to say that this show (or any other for that matter) is automatically good because it is different – another show that might fall into the same bracket is the Lyric’s Show #5 which left me utterly cold – but rather that it might require something of a different mindset to really interrogate it critically. Pointing out that it lacks a clear structure or that we’re confused in the first half may describe the obvious but clearly ignores authorial intent. The form of the theatrical structure he builds for us takes time to take shape and is an ongoing process, evolving even further beyond theatre as it tests a uniquely twenty-first century perception of the blurring of the boundaries between art and reality.
Undoubtedly it could be considered a challenge to watch – the dripfeed of info may frustrate, its playful approach to staging may flummox but it might just exhilarate as well. Adler & Gibb has so much to say about the nature of contemporary art and the way in which we both demand and shape it, hungry for every detail about the artist just as much as (and possibly even more than) the art itself. And as with any piece of conceptual art, one has to work for a meaning that makes sense for oneself.
Which is why it feels a bit sad that the reviews seem quick to dismiss Adler & Gibb. Because it asks more challenging questions than the umpteenth Shakespearean/Coward/Wildean et al revival, because this is not like a regular play, it is not “stimulating” or “profound” but rather “cold”, “prankish” and “arch”. As with Mr Burns, the excitement doesn’t necessarily lie in the mounting of a perfect piece of theatre but rather in the broadening of what we mean by theatre in the UK. Putting work like this into our major theatres is a significant step in recognising the breadth of British theatre-making, now we just need critics who are willing to take more of a leap of faith with them, not least to encourage audiences along to make up their own minds (and see Denise Gough in a performance of a lifetime).