An Oak Tree is a revelation – a startling, intriguing, multi-layered exploration of mind and matter, life and performance, fact and truth.
In this two-hander with a difference, Tim Crouch switches between himself as creator of the piece and the role of hypnotist in it. Joining him is a different actor each performance who has not seen the play or its script and has only had a few ‘suggestions’ from Crouch before going on. The actor (male or female) plays Andy, a father trying to deal with the loss of his daughter, killed in a road accident by the hypnotist. While this might be the set up for high drama, there actually follows a subtle exploration of people trying to cope.
Crouch’s instructions to his guest vary between being spoken aloud, though not always audibly to the audience, and being secretly conveyed via a mic and headphones. At first it is very clear when he is directing the performance and when he is in the role of hypnotist. As the piece progresses, however, he plays with ambiguous dialogue that can be interpreted as coming from Crouch or from the hypnotist – even inspiring questions of whether they actually share the experience of the accident – and this is echoed in the lines for the guest performer / the character of Andy. Exercises that are part of the hypnotist’s show – for which Andy volunteers – echo later as parts of Andy’s life, and the interweaving of what is occurring in the theatre and what in the story being told is just part of this intricate, complex and remarkably humorous production.
Music, seemingly controlled by Crouch sometimes, is apt for supporting both the struggles of the often cheesy hypnotist and the delicate memories of the father. A table holds scripts for the guest and technical equipment, two speakers at the back face the audience and chairs contrast a lone piano stool centrally positioned. In this open setting, Crouch and – on this occasion – author, playwright, actor and mother Caitríona Ní Mhurchú play on their own and their audience’s ability to imagine and embody what is going on, reflecting how we ourselves form our realities in life. Witty humour, with much that is self-referential and meta-theatrical, runs through the piece, while Crouch’s performance of the hypnotist varies from deeply connected to occasionally forced, with the latter possibly another layer of the exploration of performance playing out before us. Ní Mhurchú eased into finding her own way to interpret Crouch’s instructions and to connect with the character of the father, a way which led to some moving moments, never overplayed.
An Oak Tree is a masterful exploration of the power of performance, suggestion, imagination, emotion and, above all, metamorphosis. We are clearly watching many different layers at the same time and in this Crouch has created a marvel of probing, intellectual and emotional stimulation that is very fine, amusing entertainment and which provokes a longing to return for other performances!