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