I was gutted when I found out Janet Adler and Margaret Gibb aren’t real. The portrait Tim Crouch paints of this fictional couple and their anti-capitalist approach to their art, in striking contrast to a deranged Method actor and her coach making a film about Adler’s life, is so well-formed that they feel that that they can’t not be real. Even though the reality of these characters is so detailed through their dialogue, Crouch’s staging and choreography is wholly unrealistic and often absurd, a work of art in itself. This rigid stylisation, though eventually giving way, rebels against convention just as the characters do. These two sets of characters and the staging battle for dominance in a wonderfully compelling and disturbing commentary on the ownership, commodification and nature of art and its creators.
A nameless student begins with a lecture, and intersperses scenes with a discourse on Janet Adler’s life and work, shaping and contextualising the woman that actor Louise discusses with zealous devotion. Despite these strong feelings, Louise is unmoving, staring straight ahead. Her teacher Sam is the same; though their voices have some emotion, their bodies are rigid as they stare through they audience. Adler’s widow, Margaret, assumes the same style when she first appears. A boy moves any necessary props, wearing wireless headphones with instructions whispered to him by a woman sitting upstage with a microphone. Some of the props are appropriate to the action, some totally absurd. The boy’s innocence and movement is powerfully accentuated amongst the stillness; though he is a child, he has control of all physical action rather than the adults. The sculptural staging with juxtaposed power becomes a thoughtful commentary on art’s relationship with its audience, something Adler may have approved of.
Though the performances aren’t wooden in the least, the distance they maintain through roughly half of the play is frustrating, albeit canny. It works as a concept within a play about art and the detailed characters are built through dialogue, but the initial lack of connection between them leaves a gaping void.
Cath Whitefield endows Louise with a fanatical “I will stop at nothing” attitude that’s both satisfying to look down on and be disturbed by. Her and Sam’s visit to the house where Adler and Gibb last lived and their subsequent choices are a potent critique of the Method acting technique, as well as any other justification of awful behaviour for the sake of making art. Her character’s abrasiveness effectively generates empathy for Adler’s widow Margaret, ferociously played by Gina Moxley, who also shows moving tenderness when faced with the memories of her partner.
The richness of the characters and the feeling that they live beyond this play is the strength of Crouch’s writing, but the messages contained therein are important to consider. Who does art belong to once it’s in front of an audience? Where are the boundaries of an homage to the dead? Who do any resulting accolades belong to? It’s certainly thought-provoking stuff to consider the lineage of the cultural products we consume. Despite all the good intentions in the world, what damage may have been caused in the research and making of that book/film/play/artwork/song that we consume so casually?
Adler & Gibb runs through 27th August.
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