Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Adler & Gibb, Royal Court

Review: Adler & Gibb, Royal Court

Brush up your Baudrillard, folks. Adler & Gibb, Tim Crouch’s main stage debut at the Royal Court, is art about art about art about art. Got that? Ok, I’ll go slow: it’s a play. About a biopic film. About a conceptual artist – the eponymous Janet Adler. Whose work – mostly readymades and interventions – challenged the very definition of art.

But it takes a long, long time to work that out. Crouch and his co-directors, Andy Smith and Karl James, begin by deliberately confounding us, providing too little information for us to decode what we’re watching. Come the interval, with everything still just out of reach, it feels incredibly infuriating. Stick with it, let it play out in its own time, and the returns are enormous.

In front of the stage, an American art student delivers a paper about the late Janet Adler, an early conceptual artist, and her personal idol. Adler was the sort of artist to exhibit a live puppy or to eat a portrait of a renowned critic. A statement artist. A question artist. At the end of her life, she beat a retreat with her lover Margaret Gibb, “erasing the traces of her artistic output” as she went.

The student’s text is steeped in biographical detail, academic interpretation and financial valuations. It babbles with lecture hall lingo – phenomenologies, deformalisations, the abject, blah – and holds up a napkin doodle – an accidental artefact, an Adler original – as if that might shed some fresh light on the art in question. There’s basically nothing on the work itself; nothing on what it means to the speaker individually or on a wider human level. Context is all. Meaning is context. And Crouch mocks it all with relish, knocking anyone preying on the artist’s originality: students, fans, critics, collectors, the lot.

Onstage, two actors – Denise Gough and Brian Ferguson – stand in their underwear. They speak, but they don’t move; they’re not playing characters per se, not acting. But they’re not playing themselves either. Adler & Gibb, we presume. Gender-blind casting. Representational performances. Gotcha.

But no. Not so. Crouch drip-feeds us the information we need – but negatively. He falsifies our assumptions, cutting off possibilities. The characters have sex – though the actors remain stationary, facing out. We deduce he’s a man. A coach of some sort. Sam. So who’s she? An actress. Lou. OK…

These two strands work together. The more information we get about Adler and Gibb courtesy of the student lecture, the more we can pin down about the story playing out onstage. Canny, no? An admission that context has its place after all, that without it we’re entirely at sea. Accordingly, Crouch lets the story being presented onstage accumulate significance and, as it does, it snowballs into fully-fledged representation and proper enacted drama. Characters get fleshed out. They get costumes and accents and mannerisms. A set starts to materialise, a location: a studio, America.

Sam and Lou, it transpires, are making a film about Janet Adler. He’s her acting coach and she’s desperate to achieve an authentic performance as Adler. Hence their heading to the isolated shack she and Gibb shared. She needs to stand in her subject’s shoes, to see the world through Adler’s eyes in order to understand her and her work. She’s seeking a long-lost, legendary diary. The aim is the artist’s intention.

Only, much to their surprise, Gibb’s still alive and still at home – and she’s less than thrilled with the intrusion, answering the door with a shotgun in hand. Or a plastic lobster. Or a plastic lobster standing in for a shotgun. Or vice versa. (Hello, Jeff Koons. Yo yo, René Magritte.) Oh, and a dog. The dog. Adler’s artdog. Well, a young child standing in for Adler’s artdog. Either way, Gibb’s pretty uncooperative. So Lou kills the dog. Beats the life right out of it. The dog. The art. Both. Not the child, though. Thankfully. Crucially. (Bear with me.)

Next, Lou and Sam head out to the shallow grave where Adler’s buried. The primary parallel is Hamlet and the gravedigger scene – “I knew him, Horatio” – but there’s also something of Richard III, unearthed from his resting ground beneath that Leicester car park. That discovery somehow rules out invention: can any actor play the crookback without heeding his medical history? It’s the same with Lou and Adler: the drive for ever-greater authenticity has stifled creativity and originality. So too has postmodernism’s incessant tendency to allude to other artworks. All this art about art about art. At some level, to refer is to defer. Is art eating its own tail? Crouch begs the question wryly, with a rip-off of his own.

By now, the drama being enacted is fully fleshed out. It’s gripping: a full-throttle, partners-in-crime road movie of sorts, splashed with Tarantino-esque swagger and post-Kerouac cool. And, smartly, it starts to become ever so slightly unconvincing. That vomit isn’t real. Nor is that chirrup of crickets coming out of that tape recorder. A soundtrack kicks in, ever so slightly manipulative. The play – which was just getting going – is moving into a movie. What we accept as truth/reality onstage starts to solidify and stultify into something else.

Lou co-opts Gibb into a scene on camera and suddenly, she – both Lou and Gough – becomes stilted. Her on-camera performance tightens up: Lou/Gough has to hit her mark, keep her head still, control her expressions and volume. That soundtrack ratchets up a notch. And yet, on a plasma screen wheeled onstage – pulling attention – it all looks perfectly natural. And naturally perfect. The neon sign behind makes the best possible backdrop. The framing is just so. Her gaze so direct. It builds to a kiss: a perfect MTV Award-winning smooch that, off camera, has none of the headlong passion it does on screen. If anything it’s vicious.

And then down comes this screen – safety curtain stylee – transforming the Royal Court into a cinema in a single swoop. Here’s the film in all its Instagrammed, airbrushed, colour-contrasted, high definition glory. Too good to be true, but also too good to dismiss. That’s not Adler’s shack. And it’s not her shallow grave. Those aren’t Lou’s legs. But, onscreen, there’s no admitting that. Not like in theatre, with its children as artdogs and its plastic lobsters as shotguns. Crouch is, at some level, offering us an ode to theatre: it is dual status as fiction and reality, its honesty with semiology. At its baldest, art just gives us objects. Film, merely fiction. Theatre, the sweet spot in the middle, can hold both at once.

Adler and Gibb is enormous. That’s what I’m saying. It encompasses a whole load of things – and those things feel absolutely current. Crouch is grappling – really grappling – with what it means to exist now, in 2014, with our virtual reality, surrounded by signs and simulacra, with the past regurgitated as reference and retro. Where is truth in all this? Where does art stop and reality begin? Where is life?

Oh, by the way, Gough is fully fantastic. Phenomenally good. Up there with Andrew Scott at his best. She’s as assured in her choices, so that each single action – from a post-cocaine headshake to a jiggle of the hips – becomes enthralling. But she manages to pitch them delicately, on that sliding scale from bland delivery to full-bodied then over into stiffness. Fuck it: she’s right up there with Rylance in Jerusalem. She really is *that* good.

Photograph: Johan Persson

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