Review: An Oak Tree – Queensland Theatre Company @ Bille Brown Studio

1 May, 2011 by No Comments

QTC has kicked off its first production in the inaugural Studio season with An Oak Tree by Tim Crouch, a UK actor-writer. The play is directed in another first (his) by the Company’s new Artistic Associate Todd MacDonald. An Oak Tree has had a good performance track record since its first appearance at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 2005. For QTC it’s played out over 75 minutes in a new configuration in the BB Studio complete with red curtain, a little stage, plastic chairs and small drinks tables – yes you can bring yours in if you like – there’s no interval, by the way. It’s rather like a cosy Leagues Club somewhere, which is handy, because we learn that is where this performance within a performance takes place.

By the way, there is a tree in An Oak Tree. It takes its name from an art work (1973) by Michael Craig-Martin. However, the play’s tree is one spun out of your own imagination – a virtual tree, if you like. Read the Wikipedia entry on Craig-Martin’s artwork highlighted above, or scan your programme and you will get some sense of what Crouch’s play explores: need, faith, the capacity to give credence to the impossible – like transubstantiation or a change in the form or substance of something. An example is the sacramental bread and wine which, during the consecration at a Catholic Mass, is believed to become the body and blood of Christ whilst maintaining its original appearance. From another angle, theatre makers talk about ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’ as part of the transaction between the work of art on stage and the audience’s reception of it. On a more human level An Oak Tree is about grieving and coping and the terrible vulnerability of the human condition.

An Oak Tree is a small but very rich and detailed work. It is not a play for the inattentive or the casual observer, or for actors afraid to step outside their comfort zone.

However, whilst it plays with your head and with dramatic structure and language An Oak Tree‘s narrative line is quite simple and, I promise, there are no spoilers if you read further. Two people – one, a hypnotist and the other an audience member – come together in what is, supposedly, a hypnotist’s act in a club – all for a bit of fun, ladies and gentlemen. Ostensibly strangers at this point, it turns out the pair have a shared history which is gradually revealed. The individual trajectories of their lives intersected at what dramatists used to call the ‘inciting incident.’ Here, it’s one which has devastated both. Their lives have continued, but each has been crippled by that moment in the past when both were forever changed. The content and subject of the play revolves around their interaction on stage and the playing out of their coping and survival mechanisms. Almost inevitably, their lives bleed into one another; we see their becoming as one-another by the play’s end.

But An Oak Tree is also about the process of acting, specifically that part of acting which is role-playing. In this context the play works on vulnerability and trust, the same existential themes Crouch has woven throughout the rest of the work. At each performance a guest actor takes the stage as the audience member. He or she has no prior knowledge or understanding of the play’s narrative line or subject matter. None will have read or seen the play before being introduced to the rest of the ‘audience’ by the Hypnotist, played by Hayden Spencer. As she stepped on to the stage, I wondered how Andrea Moor was feeling right at that moment. She was the guest actor at Saturday’s matinee performance.

As I watched I couldn’t help but be reminded of the actor’s nightmare and the way it manifests itself in dreams. Most actors have these during rehearsal periods, and especially as opening night looms. You’re onstage, sometimes naked or in the wrong or an inappropriate costume, or you can’t find your way to the stage, or you’re in the wrong play or you don’t know your lines.

In this play the guest actor stands there – totally vulnerable and entirely in the hands of another – terrifying perhaps, like the actor’s nightmare, but this is the point of the play. As Crouch has it, it’s also the stuff of life.

Perhaps audiences will go to An Oak Tree out of some sort of voyeuristic compulsion – to see how the guest actor copes up there. It’s not quite schadenfreude although actors especially are going to be intrigued by this experiment in performance. After all, who isn’t fascinated by how acting happens? The most frequent question asked of actors, ‘How do you learn your lines?’ is bypassed in An Oak Tree. There’s no learning involved; it’s acting by the seat of the pants. Lines are fed via a headset or read from a clipboard or repeated as the Hypnotist figure delivers them to the actor as audience member: ‘Say this …’; ‘Repeat…’; ‘Say ‘yes’; Nod your head if you understand, and so on. How each actor responds, how quickly and deeply the impulse feeds to him or her and how then varies in its individual expression is the stuff of enjoyment in watching the actor at work. It will also be part of the delight for those audience who choose to revisit a performance. After the show I spoke with Director Todd MacDonald; he is enjoying the way each performance is different, and intrigued by the subtle differences in the way Hayden and the guest-of-the-day play together.  I can’t wait to chat with Andrea Moor sometime about the experience for her.

Revisits will cost you $15 on production of your original ticket stub, and you can call QTix to see who is performing on that day.

Congratulations to QTC for a great start to the Studio which, as Artistic Director Wesley Enoch notes in the programme, is setting out to develop new work and new audiences. With the Studio the Company can provide ‘a home for … aspirations, explorations and developments,’ and ‘a place in between the exploration of the independent theatre movement and the expectations of the professional stages. The Studio is a home for the theatre of tomorrow.’ Good luck!