An Oak Tree

In 2015, using actors who haven’t seen the script for a piece of theatre isn’t too much of a selling point: there are always multiple shows at the Fringe which do so. However, this was much more ground-breaking in 2005, and this fact is being recognised in this tenth-anniversary production of Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree. In many ways it is much the same as the 2005 production: Crouch is still performing the piece, the storyline is still much the same, the premise of using new actors is much the same. However, the play is such that each time the play is performed it is consciously and actively different.

By stripping back all expectations of theatre, Crouch manages to convince us entirely of its importance and worth.

The plot itself is simple: a father, played by the Actor, has lost his daughter in a car accident at the hands of a hypnotist, and now the father has arrived at the hypnotist’s show to do something, presumably to stage a confrontation. It is a story of grief and loss, and one which allows both Crouch and his Actor to display a range of emotions throughout the piece, all fed to the actor via headpiece and mime. The nature of the piece is such that it has to stop and start to allow the Actor to be fed their instructions. which does interrupt the emotional connection the play strives for throughout.

The play’s success is ensured, however, by its actor. Aoife Duffin – despite not being the greying, fifty-one-year-old man described by Crouch – played the role with real commitment and verve. The combination of her talent and drive, and Crouch’s belief in her produced a performance which was organic and engaging throughout: the relationship and trust created between the two in front of the audience was striking and impressive.

There is no pretence at realism or naturalism in the play: Crouch makes much of the performative nature of theatre. It is not only in the act of directing the actor to follow instructions via earpiece, mime, and physical scripts which allow the bones of the piece to be put on show, but the play directly questions why and how we perform to one another. However, An Oak Tree does more than facilitate questions about the nature of theatre and performance both in theatre and life: it also manages to be emotionally affecting. Of course, the emotional reaction of the actor playing The Father differs every night, but Duffin’s ability to create and present complex emotions, within moments of being presented with the situation, was impressive and highly effective.

An Oak Tree strips back theatrical conventions and notions to their bare bones: it allows audiences to ask questions of theatre and begin to think about how and why performance is used to tell stories. It is exciting, exhilarating, and a little bit scary to watch, but immensely interesting. By stripping back all expectations of theatre, Crouch manages to convince us entirely of its importance and worth. 

Reviews by Joanna Bowman

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Performances

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The Blurb

Man turns tree into girl. An intricate story of loss and suggestion performed by the playwright himself and a different second actor at each performance – an actor who has neither seen nor read a word of the play they’re in until they’re in it. This ground-breaking Obie and Herald Angel award-winning production is by one of the UK’s most original theatre-makers. It opened at the Traverse ten years ago and has since played over 300 times with over 300 different actors. 'Sheer magic' **** (Guardian). Co-directed by Karl James and Andy Smith.

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