Adler & Gibb is an interesting one. True to playwright (and director) Tim Crouch’s style, he plays with the theatrical form in innovative ways you probably haven’t seen the likes of before – you can’t knock the vast amount of intelligence which has gone into creating this production, but that doesn’t necessarily make it an enjoyable piece of theatre as much as something to contemplate. Adler & Gibb is a play about two artists of the same name, and challengingly Crouch’s work borders on being, well, a work of art.
Janet Adler and Margaret Gibb were conceptual artists (and partners) working in New York at the end of the last century – until Adler mysteriously and suddenly died. Two revolutionaries, described by art critic Dave Hicket as the ‘most ferociously uncompromising voice of their generation’, were lost, although as with all art, after Adler’s death their work continued to climb in fame and value. When you consider it simply, Crouch essentially tells a story within a story within a story. A student (Rachel Redford), is delivering her paper on Adler and Gibb to a board as part of the process for attaining a scholarship. This student is a younger version of Louise (Denise Gough) who has travelled to Adler and Gibb’s home with her acting coach Sam (Brian Ferguson) to research the role of Adler, who she is about to play in a film. Unfortunately, Gibb (Amelda Brown) has been so reclusive she’s been presumed dead and they don’t expect to bump into her. In spite of her disapproval, she’s cajoled into helping with the film, which is arguably our third story. Crouch sparks an interesting dialogue in the realm of art about the value of the copy versus the original, and the different but equally meaningful stories they tell.
As you might expect from a play so deeply concerned with appearances, the production aesthetics are sparse – symbolic if anything, using children as stage hands and as props representing an array of things including a dog and a corpse. The use of children makes for several humorous moments in a play which definitely isn’t suitable for them. Lizzie Clachan’s design enables us to move from story to story in full awareness that the boundaries of reality have been blurred. Crouch – directing with Karl James and Andy Smith – is obviously telling us to question what we see. The acting process in particular is made an example of, coldly breaking down the stages that bring the work from page to stage. Gough and Ferguson begin the play naked, reciting the same lines over and over directly at the audience instead of one another in search of meaning and a connection. Progressively they are clothed, attain costumes, accents, personalities.
The cast of four are all excellent. Redford is suitably awkward, and although she’s utterly different to Gough, they share this passion for Adler and Gibb that borders on obsession. Gough is a powerhouse throughout the show, bringing an intensity to everything she does. Similarly, Amelda Brown may hint at being a batty old woman, she too tremors with an overflow of grief brought to the surface with Gough’s presence. Ferguson matches Gough every step of the way, with his comic timing and slightly surreal deterioration. As the play draws to a close you’re practically immersed in a cinema as a giant screen descends and we watch a film of the things which were just recreated onstage. This final stroke on the cross-platform canvas does ram home the feeling that you’ve watched something other than a play. At the very least, a play as we traditionally know it, which is as a form of entertainment.
Oh and I forgot to mention, there’s a real live pug on stage. It’s all a part of a point Adler and Gibb made when commissioned to donate a work, and they donated a puppy saying that it required the same love and care as their work. The audience and cast alike make an enormous fuss over this pup during the interval as they all openly slip out of character. There’s something about the sudden urge to pick up and cuddle this living, breathing ball of fur that must say something about the value of reality in the world of art. But let’s not over-complicate things, Crouch has already got that covered with his endless layers of metaphor. A dog is for life not just for Christmas, and Adler & Gibb will linger in your thoughts long after you leave – whether that’s positively or negatively seems far from the point.
Adler & Gibb plays at the Royal Court Theatre until 5 July. For more information see the Royal Court Theatre website.