An Oak Tree, Soho Theatre, London

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Just as Tim Crouch’s remarkable An Oak Tree plays with the conventions of theatre, so too it tugs at the basis of criticism. Usually, when writing a review, you can be pretty sure that what you have seen on stage is what anyone attending the production will see. Not so here. In Crouch’s innovative two-person play, his own performance remains standard, but the second actor is different every night (Sophie Okonedo the night I was there). And the second actor takes to the stage without having read a word of the play. Their performance is minted before your eyes.

Crouch adds witty layers to this scenario. While the actor playing the second character reacts spontaneously to Crouch’s prompts, every now and then the two break off to have a chat about how it is going. But these “chats” are scripted. So the artificial dialogue of the drama is more impulsive than the “real” dialogue. The net result is that the evening acquires an extraordinary immediacy and that the audience identifies strongly with the actor, as he or she feels their way into the character.

What makes this more than an arid exercise, however, is the play’s subject: grief. Crouch plays a stage hypnotist whose abilities have deserted him since he accidentally ran over a young girl. The second actor plays the girl’s father, a man whose life has ceased to make sense. Rather than just have someone act this man’s grief, the play, in its very structure, conveys something of the profound disorientation of the pain – that sense of being cast in a role in which you don’t know what to do. Watching Okonedo, a vivacious black actress with a warm stage presence, working at becoming for us this shattered middle-aged man was very moving.

And the play with its two characters – the hypnotist who has lost the power of suggestion, the grieving man who can only cope by using it – raises questions about the mind’s ability to impose meaning on the physical world. It is philosophy in motion, if you like. You could write a thesis about it, and people probably will. But what is most amazing is that this piece, by drawing attention to its own artifice, vividly celebrates the live, raw, communal experience of theatre and the mutual give and take between actors and audience.

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