The artwork An Oak Tree. Photo: YouTube screengrab/TateShots: Michael Craig-Martin/Tate
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Can a glass of water also be an oak tree?

Why when one creative claims to turn his glass into an oak tree, we accept it as a heart-breaking reaction to loss, and when another does the same, it's confusingly pointless?

Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree is a play of transformations. “Man turns daughter into Oak Tree!” reads the description on the National Theatre website, “Writer turns person into character!”

There are two people in the play: the first is Crouch, the second changes every night. “X will be performing in the play this afternoon”, Crouch tells the audience, “X has neither seen nor read it . . . The story is as new to X as it is to you.”

X emerges from the audience. At some point in the space between their chair and the stage, they become the character.

The transformation is subtle: there is no definite moment where the character is born, yet suddenly you are in the action of the play. The person in front of you is no longer the person who came from the audience. They are now Dicky, a father who has just lost his daughter in a car accident.

The man driving the car was a stage hypnotist (played by Crouch). The accident happens before the play begins, and we learn that Dicky's daughter died beneath an oak tree that grows beside the road where she was hit. The play flits between visions of Dicky as he stands distraught beside this oak tree, and scenes where he visits the hypnotist's show some years later. When the second actor isn't reading from a script, they wear earphones, and Crouch stands downstage muttering their lines eerily into a mouthpiece.

The title of the play is based on the artist Michael Craig Martin’s piece of the same name. It is a glass of water on a shelf. It is the kind of modern art that it is easy to deride. It is confusing, and may seem better placed in a bathroom than an art gallery. Yet the piece becomes illuminated when you read the Q&A that accompanies it.

A. What I've done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.
Q. The accidents?
A. Yes. The colour, feel, weight, size ...
Q. Do you mean that the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree?
A. No. It's not a symbol. I've changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree.
[...]
Q. But the oak tree only exists in the mind.
A. No. The actual oak tree is physically present but in the form of the glass of water.

Martin’s piece of art, An Oak Tree, explores the possibility that the essence of something lies beyond its physical appearance.

It’s a difficult idea to get your head around. Crouch takes it, and shows how central it is to the very essence of theatre. He draws our attention to the transformations that we take entirely for granted. Martin is able to transform the glass to an oak tree in much the same way that Crouch, as a playwright, summons the transformation from person to actor to character.

As Martin doesn’t change “the colour, feel weight, size” of the glass, Crouch similarly doesn’t alter the physical appearance of the person/character. Throughout the play they wear exactly the same clothes they did when they walked in and took their place in the audience.

Martin’s transformation from glass to oak tree may feel forced. Crouch exercises a similar magic in a way that feels much more natural, as he draws our attention to the person as they metamorphose from person to actor to character without a single outward change.

Crouch contrasts the natural movement from person to actor to character with moments that can feel quite jarring. Just at the points when you begin to fully engage with the story, the magic is broken. Crouch changes the character back to a person instantaneously when he asks “How’s it going?” and “Are you feeling nervous”. X reads from the script: “It’s very well written”.

The reality that Crouch himself has written this line about his own play allows for a brief moment of lightness, as well as a self-awareness that X is still, in part, an actor and not fully a person.

As well as the natural transformations of theatre, Crouch uses Michael Craig Martin’s influence to orchestrate the second major change; the “man turns daughter into oak tree” part of the poster.

Dicky and his wife Dawn move apart in their different ways of processing the death of their daughter. In a memorable monologue Dicky describes these differences. For him, their daughter in her death had osmosed into the surrounding world, her presence existing in all things that he comes into contact with. For Dawn their daughter ceases to exist, and her presence is found only fleetingly, like in a stray hair stuck to a bar of soap.  

Dicky finds his daughter’s presence above all places in the oak tree that grows where she was killed. She isn’t just in the oak tree, she is the oak tree.

Crouch makes a touching point about the nature of grief. Strangely, it feels much easier so accept this radical transformation from daughter to tree when it is one so closely related to loss. When Martin turns his glass into an oak tree, it risks a confusing pointlessness that is hard to get to grips with. When Dicky does the same thing, we accept it as a heart-breaking reaction to his coming to terms with loss.

In the end, Crouch makes the final transformation: he attaches Martin’s concept to the idea of mourning, and in doing so gives it a humanity that is moving in a way that Martin’s can never be.

An Oak Tree is on at The National Theatre until 15/07/2015

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear