Adler & Gibb, Royal Court Theatre, London – review

As a premier new writing theatre, it is good to see the Royal Court staging work that challenges convention and experiments with the form itself. And Tim Crouch is an artist whose work often ingeniously plays with expectations. I loved An Oak Tree, which was challenging, moving and profound. But Adler & Gibb proves a rather long experiment and less nourishing.

The piece examines authenticity, meaning and realism on several levels. The Adler and Gibb of the title were two major 20th-century American conceptual artists who abhorred the commodification of art and retreated to a remote location where Adler died. There is a website devoted to them: Yet if you visit it, you will see that Crouch invented them.

At the heart of this onion-skinned piece is a fiction masquerading as fact. Wrapped around that are layers and layers of doubt. Louise, an earnest student, sits out front, delivering a dry dissertation on Janet Adler’s work. On stage, the same character (some years later and now an actress) is still trying to get close to her idol. Planning to play her in a biographical film, she visits the remote house in the company of an acting coach. Her desire to replicate Adler is antithetical to the artist’s ethos, so when she runs up against the aged Gibb (Amelda Brown), who still lives in the house, there is trouble. Undaunted, Louise pursues her goal, becoming increasingly grotesque in her efforts to “become” Adler. Finally, she gets Gibb to recreate the pivotal private moment when the two artists met.

All this is delivered in a deliberately non-literal style, on a bare stage. At the outset Denise Gough and Brian Ferguson, as Louise and her coach, deliver their lines in a monotone, while two young children provide a soundtrack, dry ice and joke props. Gradually, the movie “reality” invades, making visible the walls we have been imagining. In the most challenging move of all, Crouch and his co-directors give us what we are used to – realistic fiction – and make it seem creepy and shallow.

It’s clever and raises many questions about the value of art and the relationship between art, artifice and authenticity. It also satirises mercilessly the biopic industry. And yet it feels like a rather long haul. The play’s remoteness may be deliberate but it feels arch and cold. It’s a little like watching someone take a clock to pieces: interesting, but in the end, you might just like it to tell the time.

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