I went to see Tim Crouch’s The Author today at the Traverse. I had already read the play so was aware of what the play was about (and I shall do my best not to give anything away for anyone who hasn’t seen it), but I was still surprised at the sheer discomfort of watching it. To say that the performance unsettles the audience is an understatement – one person left after 5 minutes and there was a steady flow throughout, with a mass emigration in the last five minutes (including one man who left singing “Some day my prince will come”) – but this is clearly a calculated risk and something that is, paradoxically, important to the production. I talked briefly with Tim afterwards and he said that this was the largest number of walk-outs they’d had, but that there were always some and that during one performance in London he was threatened with physical violence.
So what is it that has this effect? I was certainly discomfited by the performance, but I knew I was in a theatre watching a show and I knew that the character Tim Crouch was playing – who is also called Tim Crouch – was not the same as the ‘real’ Tim Crouch. To some extent, I think it is the identification of the audience as a character and the complicity that this carries. Some people want to sit in the dark and have the actors behave as if they’re not being watched. This is, of course, a relatively recent phenomenon dating back no further than the 19th century when Richard Wagner decided to turn the houselights out at Bayreuth. Before this the audience were very much part of the show (literally in some cases as seats would sometimes be on the stage itself). Tim Crouch takes this a stage further and actively seeks out the audience’s approval throughout the performance - “Is this OK?”, “Shall I carry on?” he and the other actors ask of us regularly. As I mentioned before, he blurs the lines further by playing a character called Tim Crouch, an award-winning playwright with a play on at the Royal Court (where this production originated), all the actors play characters with the same names and the character Tim’s fictional wife has the same name as the real Tim’s. So far so Paul Auster, but Crouch not only makes his character morally dubious, he also avoids the common actor’s trick of trying to make his character likeable. His character makes no attempt to defend what he has done, he presents it to us in order that we might form our own opinion. In doing this, he makes the audience in some way complicit and I think this is an incredibly brave thing to do. In many ways, the performance needs at least some people to walk out because this acknowledges the way it empowers the audience. Yet this act of empowerment is easily mistaken – one critic from a smart Sunday paper gloriously misunderstood the central motif of Tim’s earlier play An Oak Tree as narcissism rather than recognising that it was the very opposite. (In An Oak Tree the second actor is played by someone new every night, they knew nothing about the play in advance and only met Tim shortly before the performance starts – during the performance they are given lines to read, or fed them through an ear piece. The critic in question mistook this for narcissistic control rather than recognising the surrender to chance.)
But this is what happens when people operate on the borders, they leave themselves open to misinterpretation, but thank goodness for Tim Crouch – we need people like him to ask questions and make us feel uncomfortable. Did I enjoy The Author? I don’t think I could say that, but would I recommend it to others? Absolutely.