An Oak Tree 'Has Grief, Guilt And Hyperreality' — Review

Ruth Hargreaves
By Ruth Hargreaves Last edited 30 months ago
An Oak Tree 'Has Grief, Guilt And Hyperreality' — Review ★★★★☆ 4

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An Oak Tree, The National TheatreRuth Hargreaves

An Oak Tree, National TheatreRuth Hargreaves

Tim Crouch and Amy Griffiths in An Oak Tree. Photo: Greg Veit

Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆

The main storyline of a traditional theatre show should take you down a path. It may be long and winding, but it is often a single linear path, accompanied by a few offshoots for sidelines and secondary characters. The Oak Tree, in contrast, is a maze. Not just a maze, but a mirror maze, packed full of deceptive reflections, myriad turnings and unsettling familiarity. Let us try to explain.

Currently performing at National Theatre’s temporary pop-up space, The Oak Tree is written and devised by Tim Crouch, who is also one of only two performers. What you are “seeing” is a father, bereft after the death of his daughter, attending the show of the hypnotist who hit and killed her with his car with the hope it will bring some sort of closure. But what you are really seeing (as in right there, in the theatre, acting aside) is Tim Crouch as the hypnotist and a secondary actor who has turned up with no idea of what show they will be performing, as the father.

We're used to this theatrical "magic". If we're told that a piano stool is an oak tree, then an oak tree it is. We "see" what we are told to see. But when reality and tangibility are called into question, it all becomes rather meta.

For the unaware actor (who was Conor Lovett on our show, but this changes to a new performer every time), it is essentially their first rehearsal live, in front of an expectant audience. While playing the role of the hypnotist, Crouch simultaneously guides the helpless actor through the scenes via a script placed in his hands, inaudibly (to the audience) through a set of headphones, and direct speech: “Are you nervous? Say yes”. Of course, the performer says yes. Hm, already it's sounding a bit familiar.

The greatest success here is in making the secondary performer so powerless, so vulnerable, so needy, that he begins to blend effortlessly with the pitiful father who is searching for salvation. So too the hypnotist - persuasive, directive - blurs into puppeteer Tim Crouch.  The clear parallel here is between performance and hypnosis, both relying on a suspension of reality and a capacity for belief. But An Oak Tree is also deeply concerned with grief and guilt.

Character is broken and Conor is asked how he is feeling. Is he ok? Does he want to stop? No, he says, but we notice he is still reading from the script. Perhaps it is we who are being manipulated, teased, hypnotised. In such a complex show, there’s a beauty in knowing that every single person in the audience can be taking away their own personal message from it. Here’s ours:

Grief is not a single, linear path. Guilt is not a single, linear path. When faced with tragedy our coping mechanisms are convoluted, tangled, and an internal battle for control ensues: dominance or despair. Your subconscious takes you round in insufferable circles, desperately searching for a way out. Very much like a maze. A mirror maze, perhaps, packed full of deceptive reflections, myriad turnings and unsettling familiarity.

It may well be wrong, or perhaps there is no wrong answer, but our brain feels stronger for the puzzle. Go and see what you find.

An Oak Tree is at National Theatre's temporary theatre until 15 July. Tickets cost £15-£20 and can be booked online. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary review ticket.

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Last Updated 24 June 2015